He took it away, nailing it to the Cross

HieronymusCross

You’ve noticed by now that I’m passionate about our understanding of the Cross and how we integrate our understanding of what God does in Christ to address human fallenness with practical, transformational processes. I was going to apologize for pursuing this theme so unrelentingly, but then it dawned on me how strange it would be to apologize for such a thing. Jesus on the Cross for our salvation? Pressing in from every conceivable angle to better understand this event ought to remain the focus of theological interest and personal transformation. There is no Christianity without it.

I come back to Greg Boyd’s recent work in particular (chiefly because of my personal connections to him) as the context in which to contemplate the relevant texts, questions, and proposals, but it’s an ancient conversation. As for recent work, Greg’s hasn’t been the only (or even the most important) work discussed here. Girard by far has been the most influential on me. Heim, Alison, and Robinette (who all appropriate Girard to various degrees) have sat round this table as well.

Let me begin with a quote from Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. I’ll follow up with some reflections:

There exists in Paul a genuine doctrine of the victory represented by Jesus’ apparent failure—a victory that is absolute but remains concealed. This doctrine explains the efficacy of the Cross in terms that have nothing to do with sacrifice. However, with the passage of time this doctrine was completely smothered by the sacrificial reading; on the rare occasions the commentators take note of it, they are liable to suspect it of containing unpalatable magical elements that justify the disuse into which it has fallen.

Here we have yet another example of the remarkable paradoxes with which his analysis is strewn. In effect, Paul’s doctrine of the efficacy of the Cross is really quite…cruical. We must perceive its pertinence in the context of our reading of the Cross as a means of revealing the founding mechanism. It is possible, I believe, to show that this doctrine is much more important than all the sacrificial reading. It is later on, with the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the other texts either inspired by it or deriving from a similar inspiration, that we see the triumph of the sacrificial interpretation, which Christian theology has not yet managed to throw off.

The text that tells us most is Colossians 2.13-15. Here Paul writes of Christ that he has made us

…alive together with him, having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

The bond that stood against us with its demands is human culture, which is the terrifying reflection of our own violence. It bears against us a witness that we do not even notice. And the very ignorance in which we are plunged seats the principalities and powers upon their thrones. By dissipating all this ignorance, the Cross triumphs over the power, brings them into ridicule, and exposes the pitiful secret of the mechanism of sacralization The Cross derives its dissolving capacity from the fact that it makes plain the workings of what can now only be seen—after the Crucifixion—as evil. For Paul to be able to speak as he does, it is necessary for the power of this world to operate in the same way as the Crucifixion does. So it is indeed the Crucifixion that is inscribed in the gospel text and is demystified by Christ, stripped for evermore of its capacity to structure the work of the human mind.

Some Greek Fathers made a great deal of this Pauline theory of the Crucifixion. For Origen, as for Paul, before Christ mankind is subservient to the yoke of the powers of evil. The pagan gods and the quality of the sacred are both identified with the evil angels, who still rule over the nations. Christ appears in the world to do battle with these ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’…

Time and again Origen comes back to the ‘public example’ or ‘spectacle’ of the Epistle to the Colossians and to the work of the Cross which ‘leads captivity captive’ (Commentary on John VI, 56-57).

It is a sign of Dante’s insight into the text I have just read to you, as well as into other texts, that he was impelled, in his Divine Comedy, to show Satan nailed to the Cross—a picture that can only appear bizarre and out of place to those who maintain a conventional, sacrificial interpretation of the Crucifixion.

The prove that the Crucifixion is really about a hidden mechanism of masking that is conclusively demolished by the description of it in the Gospels, we have other passages from Paul that show how the wisdom of God ironically outplayed the calculations of the powers. ‘None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8).

By resorting to the founding mechanism once again against Jesus (who had revealed the secret of their power, the founding murder), the powers of this world thought to stifle the Word of Truth for ever. They thought to triumph yet again by the method that had always allowed them to triumph in the past. What they failed to appreciate was that, in spite of the temporary consensus in which even the most faithful of the disciples cooperated, nothing like the usual mythological falsehood would appear in the Gospels. They would show, not the lie common to the religions of the entire planet, but the structural matrix in itself. Under the influence of the spirit, the disciples perpetuated the memory of the event, not in the mythic that ought to have triumphed once again, but in a form that reveals the innocence of the just man who has suffered martyrdom. Thus they avoided sacralizing the victim as the guilty party and prevented him from being held responsible for the purely human disorders that his death was supposed to end.

…Divine punishment is demystified by the gospels; its only place nowadays is in the mythic imagination…

_____________________________

jesus-on-a-tree-crossThere’s a lot to engage here. Girard’s view that the letter to the Hebrews represents a return to a violent-sacrificial reading of Christ and so fails to carry forward the abandonment of that scapegoating view is an extremely interesting topic, but one for another time. With Girard in mind though, I’d like to reflect on particular aspects of Greg’s overall view of the Cross in hopes of clarifying the conversation.

What is it that is objectionable about Greg’s view of the Cross? What makes his view ‘penal’ (if that’s the best word to get at the problem) in spite of the fact that he so eloquently champions such unconditional ‘love’ as the motivation behind God’s suffering for us in Christ? That objectionable center, it seems to me, is the belief that what constitutes the saving efficacy of Christ’s suffering is what transpires in God, between Father and Son, in terms of the Son suffering the wrath of the Father’s withdrawal. For Greg, the drama of salvation is an inner-trinitarian event in which God becomes the object of his own judgment. Greg’s view is penal because it grounds the saving work of the Cross in God’s experience of that godforsakenness which is, on Greg’s account, God’s judgment (even though it obtains through “withdrawal”).

This is a controversial claim to make about Greg’s work, but I’m not the only one making it – though I am the slowest and dumbest. Greg has sent mixed messages as well. One could easily produce examples of Greg explicitly dismissing the ‘penal-substitutionary’ view the Cross. Perhaps the clearest example would be Greg’s comments here. You’ll notice that many of the objections we have to Greg’s view of the Cross are objections he has to a penal-substitutionary view of the Cross as well. So what gives?

What gives is that while decrying the penal view that “God kills Jesus” and that Jesus “satisfies God’s wrath,” or that Jesus “saves us from God,” Greg nevertheless makes the claim that what in fact saves us is the Father’s abandonment of the Son on the Cross, that this abandonment is divine “withdrawal” which constitutes the “godforsakenness” Greg equates with God’s judgment of sin. Jesus thus suffers the divine wrath we deserve. As Greg explains here (from minute 3:40 on), God must ‘become his antithesis’ (“becoming sin” and “cursed” by God) and suffer his own godforsakenness. Derek Flood notes the punitive connections as well:

The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal is grounded in an understanding of the cross where “the Son bore the judgment of the sin we deserved” (768). This reflects a penal substitutionary understanding of the cross, the key term here being “penal,” meaning punishment. I should note that Greg does not like the term penal substitution, and does make a point of stating that he rejects the popular form of this doctrine where “the Father had to vent his wrath against sin in order to embrace sinners” (796), arguing instead that “God’s punishments are always redemptive in intent” (785). In other words, he still holds to an understanding of the atonement rooted in punitive justice (the idea that things are made right through violent punishment), but sees the intent of the violence as restorative (or as Greg calls it, “redemptive”), rather than as retributive.

Greg maintains that viewing the Cross in terms of “punishment” and “wrath” doesn’t constitute a penal or punitive view of the Cross because it is undertaken by Father, Son and Spirit out of love and in order to redeem us. It’s redemptive, not punitive. But regardless of God’s benevolent and redemptive intentions, punitive connotations creep back into this view at precisely the point Greg is asked to explain what it is about God that constitutes the necessity of his suffering the judgment of godforsakenness (especially since this suffering has nothing to do with making possible God’s freely forgiving us). The answer can’t also be love, for it is entirely possible to conceive of reconciling broken relationships without requiring anyone to “suffer the consequences” of the offense. That is, the human experiences from which we derive analogies that form the basis of attempts to articulate a non-violent view of the atonement do not themselves entail a universal or even common intuition that an offense requires that the full consequences of the offending party’s behavior be experienced.

If God’s suffering for us precludes punitive associations simply because God loves those for whom he suffers godforsakenness, then not even the most egregiously crude penal-substitutionary theory is in fact a punitive understanding of the atonement, for such understandings all affirm that God suffers the wrath we deserve ‘out of love’ and ‘with the intention to redeem’, just as Greg maintains. In other words, for all Piper’s or R. C. Sproul’s differences with Greg, Sproul and Piper affirm that Jesus suffers God’s wrath, experiencing the consequences of our sinful choices, ‘out of love’ and ‘in order to redeem’, just as Greg holds. But not even Greg takes this as evidence that their view is anything but punitive. Why not? Why does God’s wrath as godforsakenness experienced by Christ out of love for a few unconditionally predetermined elect constitute a punitive theory of the Cross, but Greg’s view that Jesus experiences divine wrath as godforsakenness out of love for all who are invited freely to accept Christ doesn’t count as punitive? If Greg holds that God’s loving, redemptive intentions absolve his own theory of the Cross from penal associations, on what grounds does he object to any view of the atonement being penal, for all hold that God suffers the consequences of our sin out of love in order to redeem?

What do the worst of penal views and Greg’s view of the Cross have in common then? What makes them equally, objectionably penal? It is the understanding that the Cross’s power to save is derived from the godforsakenness that transpires in God through the Father’s abandonment of the Son in judgment on sin. That one adds to this a ‘benevolent intention to redeem’ or that ‘wrath proceeds via the Father’s passive withdrawal’ (Greg) as opposed to the Father actively “doing something to” Christ (cruder penal versions) is entirely beside the point. The relevant contagion is present regardless of the finer distinctions. The notion that the “death consequences” of our choices must play out in God, between Father and Son, in order to secure the good God intends, is itself the mythological contagion that undermines the gospel’s radical message. Girard understood this fundamental insight as defining a truly non-violent and non-penal view of the Cross.

One last thought. Girard mentions Col. 2.13-15:

…having forgiven us all or trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

Contemplate your way through the key verbs of the passage: “canceling the charge,” “taking it away” (or “erasing” it), and “disarming” (or “spoiling”) the powers and authorities are not the sort of things one says if the point is to say that the just consequences of sin are indeed meted out and experienced. Greg makes use of this classic Christus Victor passage as well. But it’s precisely this passage that makes Greg’s additional proposal that salvation is grounded in what transpires between Father and Son (in terms of Gods experiencing ‘divine withdrawal as wrath’) and not simply between God and ‘the powers’ that condemn, which exposes the punitive underside of Greg’s view of the Cross. The verbs (“cancel,” “erase,” “disarm”) and the scope of their effective work (‘God’ vis-à-vis ‘the Powers’ as opposed to the ‘Father’ vis-à-vis the ‘Son’) locate the saving event of the Cross in God’s enduring the full brunt of humanity’s scapegoating violence, not in God’s enduring God’s abandonment of God.

Lastly, consider this. If God forgives us without abandoning himself (which Greg holds to be true), and if the gospel presentations of the Cross unanimously reveal Christ’s innocence (which unmask the scapegoating myth), then there can be no doubt that God considers Christ to be innocent, relates to Christ throughout his suffering as innocent, treats Christ throughout as innocent, loves him as innocent, sustains him as innocent, and finally vindicates his innocence through resurrection. If we grant this much, there remains no need for a further exchange within God where God pretends anything else is the case, where the death consequences of our sin are, supposedly, experienced by God by means of the Father’s withdrawing from the Son. Don’t misunderstand me – I do not say God needn’t suffer to save us. On the contrary, he must suffer, but only because we require it, and even then God suffers our rejection of him, not the consequences which are God’s judgment of our rejecting him.

Texts in travail: reviewing Crucifixion of the Warrior God—Part 5

crossvisionSomeone recently shared with me a review of Greg’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God written by Emory U grad student Collin Cornell and published by the Christian Century. The sheer size of CWG (1,400 pages) places high demands upon any reviewer. Ted Grimsrud over at Peace Theology is 15 posts into his review and he’s just over half way through it. Cornell, however, reviews Cross Vision, a condensed version of CWG published a couple months ago. He comes at things from an interesting perspective that I haven’t run into in any of the reviews I’ve read thus far, and I thought I’d like to engage that perspective a bit. I’m not, however, taking this up to further review CWG.

Cornell expresses admiration for Greg’s vision and pastoral concern as well as his Chris-centered focus, and he does a good job of summarizing Greg’s main points, but it is his responses to Greg that interest me. As I read him, Cornell’s main points are these:

First, on the whole, Greg’s view doesn’t comport with Cornell’s experience of reading the OT. Greg often shares the story of a woman who found it impossible to love and worship the violent God depicted in the OT and whose faith was saved after learning from Greg of a way to avoid attributing such violence to God. Without wanting to ignore the problem passages, Cornell nevertheless feels that Greg represents a very one-sided vision of God as he’s depicted in the OT. Cornell explains:

To this charge of theological error on a nearly testamental scale, my first objections is simply this: I have found the God of the Old Testament stunning—beautiful and worthy of worshipand not just in the handful of passages that Boyd approves. I got into studying the Old Testament by reading a mentor’s paper on the golden calf story. In that debacle of human idolatry at the very moment of covenant making, in God’s rage and Moses’s intercession, in God’s final, precipitous new commitment to stay loyal to God’s people—I met a God I recognized: the one who absorbed the anguish of ultimate rejection and then, three days later, moved toward impossible new loyalty yet stronger than death. More than that, I felt I understood more deeply the tempestuous drama of divine long-suffering and human recidivism at the core of the Christian confession. The same held true for other texts of this older testament: far from being false and sub-Christian, I perceived in them a vast, continental theological consonance with the God made known in Jesus Christ.

Fair enough. There are many religious believers whose view of God is not disturbed by the violence attributed to God in the OT. But in fairness to Greg, part of his vision in CWG is precisely to provoke or awaken a sense of disturbance about these passages. How successful Greg is at this depends in part upon how readers respond to God contemplate as doing and commanding such violence. If no discontinuity is generated on an affective level, then so be it. But for those who can’t integrate such violence with the truth of God revealed in Christ, the question of how God is present within Israel’s Scriptures is acute. Cornell continues:

This is not to shrug off the troubling theology or ethics of the Old Testament. But it is to contend that the Old Testament holds more (and much more) than just such troubles. This is more than Boyd seems to grant…he treats these books and the Old Testament at large as an almost unrelenting train of horrors….

I didn’t get the sense that Greg painted a picture of the OT as cancerous through and through with a merely violent view of God. Greg recognizes within the OT a portrait of God as good, merciful and loving, and he’s eager to grant that this comports entirely with the character of God revealed in Christ. But since Greg’s task is to awaken people to to the discontinuity between this portrait and violent portraits, it’s only natural that his emphasis falls on the latter and how such passages cannot, in any simple or straightforward way, be harmonized with the gracious portrait of God found in the OT. That’s part of Greg’s project, to establish the incompatibility between God’s being the kind of God revealed in Christ, on the one hand, and also the subject of the violence and genocide attributed to him by OT texts. So for Greg it’s not whether the OT contains both motifs or themes (it does); it’s whether being found in the text alone tells us that both types of passage reveal God in the same way.

Secondly, Greg’s view has unacceptable consequences for our understanding of Judaism. Cornell comments:

Besides the fact that this view of the Old Testament does not comport with my own reading experience—nor that of many Christians in many generations—it may also yield unsettling results for a Christian theology of Judaism. Boyd considers all of God’s instruction given to Israel on Sinai and gathered up in the Pentateuch as a sprawling instance of divine condescension: “the law-oriented portrait of God, which constitutes a foundational aspect of the OT, is a divine accommodation”—and so a product of human projection that God did not in fact do or reveal. Boyd radicalizes, as it were, Paul’s claim that the law was “ordained by angels” (Gal. 3:19) and ascribes it in effect to those “a little lower than angels.” So, too, does Boyd humanize “all depictions of Yahweh as uniquely belonging to Israel.” For him such depictions are theological falsities, which God with Christlike humility deigned to tolerate.

…Boyd is alert to the problem; the final appendix of his two-volume work defends his approach against the accusation of supersessionism. But Boyd seems to understand the term narrowly: he condemns the idea that Jews are under God’s wrath and he renounces replacement theology. What he does not comment on is the extent to which Judaism knows God—or does not. Could it be that in Boyd’s view, Judaism knows God only slightly, since it treasures a testament so saturated with theological untruth?

From my own reading and review, I didn’t sense that Greg denied OT believers truly knew God, or that God is not truly revealed in the OT. However, the extent to which – and, indeed, how – Israel’s Scriptures reveal God is something determined Christologically. In one sense, there really is an inherent incompleteness to the OT. The OT cannot stand alone. Christ is where Israel’s calling and history tend. The OT is meant for Christ, and until it is read in/through Christ, its meaning remains unfulfilled, uncovered. For Paul there is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ (cf. 2Cor 3.7-18 where Paul contrasts the OT with Christ). This usefulness for teaching, rebuking and correcting is, thus, Christologically shaped. The OT can contributed to the formation of Christlike character and to empower the doing of good works when read Christologically. That’s its purpose. So in response to Cornell, yes, God is “slightly known” prior the advent of Christ and the bestowal of the Spirit in the sense that any anticipation fails to embody the fuller reality of what is to come.

Lachish-battering

Thirdly, Greg’s view undermines our ability to trust God’s promises. Cornell expresses a further concern:

Boyd means for his book to cleanse the theologically polluted imagination of Christian readers and to catalyze a breakthrough of trust in God. But trusting in God means trusting in God’s faithfulness to abide by God’s promises. And Boyd has placed a large question mark—if not a strikethrough—over God’s promises to Israel. Boyd’s regimen of Sachkritik systematically doubts the veracity of the Old Testament vis-à-vis the character of God. This makes it nearly impossible to utter an “Amen” to all God’s past promises that are “Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). For Boyd, Christ does not so much fulfill God’s promises and match God’s character, known already from Israel’s scriptures, as reveal a previously unknown (or half-unknown) God.

Boyd’s proposal also casts a shadow over God’s faithfulness to New Testament promises. The fires of theological criticism, once kindled, will hardly stay contained to one testament. Boyd realizes this. He writes: “Since we are dependent on the NT for our knowledge of God’s definitive revelation in the crucified Christ . . . one [might] question how we can be assured that God did not have to accommodate aspects of the NT authors’ fallen and culturally conditioned worldview.” In fact Boyd admits in principle that God could have made such accommodations: perhaps the New Testament, too, falls into theological error, which God endures with Christlike silence. But Boyd does not in actuality think that this occurred, and he apologizes vigorously for New Testament texts that appear to promote chauvinism or violence.

I wonder if Greg does think this has happened in the NT. Would his reading of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and the blinding of Elymas (Acts 13) count as an example? Cornell continues:

I say, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: theological criticism cannot be set loose on one testament and muzzled for the other. Rather we must acknowledge that in whatever ways the Old Testament is caught up in human fallenness and cultural specificity, the New Testament is also.

Cornell is quite right. The NT authors are just as fallible and culture-bound as the OT writers, and so are not exempt from the limitations and constrains of a ‘dialectical inspiration’. And though I don’t pretend to speak for Greg, I think Greg would agree. So Greg will have to explain how he integrates that fallibility into his view of NT texts. For myself, I’d suggest that where the OT witnesses to divine acts of deliverance and judgment, the NT witnesses to a fundamentally different kind of divine act (Incarnation). Christ is God-incarnate, personally present. Nothing roughly parallel to this is being testified to by any OT text. The revealing act in the NT, then, is not a text per se, but the personal presence of God as Christ. This in turn shapes something of the ‘dialectic’ at work in NT vs OT texts (see my Inspiration the presence of final causality). As Heb 1.1 suggests, God spoke in many different ways in the past, but now he has spoken [finally, definitively] to us in his Son. While NT authors remain fallible and not exempt from individual errors, the apostolic deposit reflects an entirely different sort of relationship between those who testify, on the one hand, and the divine act being witnessed to, on the other. God incarnated, in part, because the divine voice in the OT was dependent upon human fallibilities in a way not so dependent in Christ. In Christ, God ‘speaks for himself’, we might say, and that closes the interpretive gap at play in the ‘dialectic’ that defines divine inspiration.

Moreover, I don’t think Greg is guilty, as Cornell suggests, of “placing a question mark over God’s promises to Israel.” What I read Greg as saying is that Christ defines what God’s genuine promises in the OT even are. Christology redefines the question. No longer do we simply ask ‘What the the OT text explicitly promise?’ Rather, on what basis do we determine the nature and scope of God’s promises in the OT texts? Greg is arguing that Christ is how we define Israel’s traditions as divine promise. Christ reveals how well the OT approximates that promise and where it gets that promise right. Cornell and Greg may just disagree on this, but I’m not sure it means Greg doesn’t think we can trust God’s promises. It just means Greg limits God’s promises to Christ. “Christ is the end/telos of the law for all who believe” (Rm 10.4), and “no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘yes’ in Christ.” (2Cor 1.20) That said, even those OT texts that ‘get God wrong’ function as promisory notes that anticipate a revelation of God (Incarnate) who ‘gets God right’.

In the end, though, I’m unsure what Cornell does with the violence attributed to God in the OT. He explains:

“I can’t love the God who ever demanded massacre,” the woman in Boyd’s story said. But if God’s faithfulness authorizes the treatment of these other, particular texts as promissory, then the same may hold for violent passages; even texts about divine aggression could then signify something enduringly true about God and life before God. Such an approach would not bypass the difficult plain sense, but would look expectantly through it and beyond it.

I’m not sure what it means to say “God’s faithfulness authorizes the treatment of these [violent] texts as promissory.” How would Cornell retrieve that “something enduringly true about God and life” without appeal to Christ? How would the final truth “not bypass the difficult plain sense” when that plain sense is a divine command to commit genocide? How does one “look through and beyond” God’s actually commanding genocide? Cornell suggests, I take it, that the answer lies in spiritualizing the violent texts and reading them as a motivation to spiritual warfare:

Here, too, the history of interpretation furnishes precedents. As the Israelites traveled out of Egypt and toward Canaan, the Amalekites accosted them, and YHWH swore to make war against Amalek forever (Exod. 17). Jewish tradition saw in this seemingly very local occurrence the outline of a far larger and more persistent conflict. Amalek became an archetype for evil, such that the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, could advise, “We must wipe Amalek out of our hearts whenever he attacks.” And when I myself pray the psalm that asks God to “strike my enemies on the jaw” (Ps. 3:7), I do not think of concrete individuals—but of “our ancient foe, who seeks to work us woe” (as Luther’s hymn puts it).

But this leaves the problem unaddressed. The problem, as I understand Greg, is not how we can take God’s having actually done and commanded gross violence to be an “archetype” for the believer’s non-violent struggle against evil. The problem is God’s having actually done and commanded such violence. Does Cornell think God actually commanded Israel to commit genocide? I’m not sure. If yes, then spiritualizing the texts after the fact doesn’t address the fundamental problem Greg is concerned to awaken folks to.

Inspiration the presence of final causality

divineinspirationI will end this post with the suggestion that when it comes to what Christians call the inspiration of Scripture, inspiration is the presence of final causality. But I want to explain this thought on the heels of a few reflections.

Along with recently revisiting Greg’s claim that God “takes responsibility for sin and evil,” I was thinking about how he imagines the divine inspiration of Scripture’s violent passages which falsely portray God’s character on their “surface” but which in their “depths” truthfully reveal God as gracious and non-violent. Just as God stoops to bear the falsehoods of human beings on the Cross, in Scripture God often condescends to accommodate human falsehood, and this accommodation reveals the depths of God’s non-violent love.

I like a lot about this part of CWG. The “dialectical” nature of inspiration makes good sense. But to recognize the dialectical (conversational) nature of Scripture is to re-conceive how God is inspirationally present on the human side of the conversation. In what sense does inspiration embrace human contributions that ‘get God wrong’? Does saying the Bible may get it wrong (in the explicit claims of its “surface”) mean such texts do not reveal God? Greg parses out the dialectical nature of Scripture by distinguishing between a text’s “surface” (the explicit, intended claims of its authors/editors) and its “depths.” If a text gets God wrong, it does so on its surface. These same texts, however, possess a “depth” which is brought to light by faith reading the texts in light of the Cross. Greg explores this at length and I found his discussion insightful.

I’m unsure, though, how Greg understands “surface” and “depth” to relate to one another in the composing of texts. Are surface and depth each a feature of the OT texts themselves, or are the “depths” a separate text, as it were, composed as the Church reads the OT Christologically? The latter tends toward what Greg objects to as a “dismissive” approach to the violent texts, not very different from simply denying that these texts are inspired. Greg, I believe, wants to take the additional step in making the Christological “depths” of OT violence texts a feature of those texts. Why? Because Jesus took those violent texts to be inspired (in their textual form and claims), and we shouldn’t think that Christ was mistaken in this belief. This would be in contrast to a view that identified inspiration with the light of the Cross cast upon the surface of texts enabling us to perceive in the shadows cast the extent to which texts fail to portray the cruciform shape of God’s character and intentions. But how is this any different than reading the Vedas, the Quran, or The Pearl of Great Price Christologically?

I occupy a place somewhere in the middle, I think. I do not want to dismiss OT texts that “get God wrong” as so much uninspired paganism to be cast out of the canon of Scripture. I do value these texts and I think together they constitute an inspired space where we encounter the voice of God. But I also recognize that I’m only able to value these texts this way through and because of Christ. I’ve tried to work through this in my What is the Bible? series. Permit me a quote from Part 1 of the series:

We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.

What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way…

Might some errors belonging to these persons find their way into the text? Yes. No human author possesses an inerrant set of beliefs. No one person’s transformation and world-construction is complete or error-free. But overtime, enough of the truth needing to be said gets said in enough ways that a worldview is formed adequate for the Incarnate One and the Church as his Body. This means we view inspiration as relative in the first sense to preparing a context adequate for incarnation and not primarily about providing us a philosophical or scientific textbook with inerrant answers to whatever questions we might put to it.

leonardo-dicaprio-bad-news-the-great-gatsby-telephone-phone-2

What I’d like to add here is an analogy to help expresses how we might imagine the dialectical nature of God’s inspiring presence in Scripture – both in the composing of texts and in reading them Christologically. We ask students to imagine reading the Bible in terms of listening to one end of a telephone conversation. We read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, for example, and find ourselves on one end of Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians.

Often what a person says on the phone can only finally be understood in the context of the whole conversation. Those of us listening to one side have to construct a picture of the whole conversation as best we can. Reading the Bible is a bit like that. Its texts are dialectical. When we read 1Corinthians, we have to reconstruct the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians based only on what we hear Paul say (never mind the fact that we ourselves are conversation partners who bring our own contributions to interpreting the half of the conversation we possess).

IMG_0306_0Widen this analogy a bit and imagine the Bible in its entirety to be one side of a conversation Israel and God are having. When we read the Bible, we are listening to one side of that conversation. Right here we immediately meet a fundamental question about the Bible. When the Bible says, “And thus says the Lord” aren’t we listening to the divine side of the conversation? Isn’t the Bible essentially on “speakerphone” so that at one moment we’re directly hearing the human side of the conversation (a prophet or king) and at the next moment hearing God?

I apologize if you’re hearing it first from me, but the answer is ‘no’, that’s not what’s going on. Divine inspiration, whatever it is, does not give us God’s side of the conversation unmediated by the instrumentation of human voices. If or when we hear God’s voice in Scripture, we hear it in their voices. “And God said” means “And Israel said ‘God said’.” We are listening to Israel’s side of her conversation with God – hearing Israel speak, repeat what she thinks God is saying, disagree with other Israelites about what God is saying, cry, scream, interpret and misinterpret. All this comprises the “surface” of the text (Israel’s side of the conversation), and it’s all we have.

That’s not bad news. We have every reason to believe that Israel could and did faithfully represent God’s voice. But sometimes – and here some will become uncomfortable – we have good reason to suspect Israel did not hear God rightly but that she monopolized the conversation to promote her own agenda. The good news is that when it comes to a text’s portrayal of God, the Christian reader has in Christ a way to adjudicate the OT conversation. Why think Jesus gets God right? We think Christ faithfully embodies the drama of divine-human conversation because God raised him from the dead – and not for any other reason.

We have, in Christ then, a truthful revelation of the conversation between God and Israel. It is this conversation that brings the entirety of Israel’s recorded conversation to light – to the light of confirmation and to the light of judgment – confirmation because God can be seen to be faithfully carving out on the human side of the conversation (Israel) truth sufficient for Incarnation (where God will assume the human side of this conversation) and judgment because now through Christ we’re able to distinguish where and how human authors get God wrong.

Once we admit this much, I’m not sure how exactly to locate in the disfigured “surface” of texts an inspiration by which God renders that surface the means of accessing a “depth” which faithfully reveals God (as Boyd seems to argue). Functionally speaking, once Christ’s voice becomes the means by which we listen to the entire conversation we call Scripture, inspiration is reduced to Christ who defines the hermeneutical center, and when you’re standing at the center relating to everything in terms of its relationship to that center, it doesn’t really matter how close or distant things are from the center.

This is a real problem for inerrantists who want every explicit claim of the text to be the center. Every “surface” has to be its own “depth.” It is a view of the drama of divine-human relations utterly void of any real appreciation for transcendence and teleology. It is a shallow approach to understanding the Bible; but if God is truly transcendent, and all things tend toward their final end in Christ, and God is covenantally united to Israel to carve out space for his own Incarnation – then we’re free to let the Bible be the mixed-bag that it is. I suggested previously:

We prefer that every part of the Bible [on its “surface”] be a perfect, inerrant conclusion to some aspect of the human struggle and journey. Girard’s phrase [“texts in travail”] 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. They 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.”

All that said, let me bring back the suggested axiom I opened with. I’ll probably hack this up fairly well, so be patient. Don’t laugh too loudly. This is tentative and speculative.

I’m suggesting that when it comes to understanding God’s inspiration of the Bible:

  • Inspiration is the presence of final causation.

We can express this as a formula. A what? Yes, a formula.

e-mc-squared-einstein

As I pondered how a God of constant truth would give us a book whose portrayals of God are only relatively accurate, I found myself back and forth between this ‘constancy’ and ‘relativity’. Now, don’t laugh too loudly, but Einstein’s E=mc2 came to mind. The relativistic mass (m) of a body times the (constant) speed of light squared (c2) is equal to the energy (E) of that body. Notice the presence of both a relativistic factor (the mass of a body) and a constant (the speed of light). I’m not transposing this into a theological axiom. It’s just an analogy that got me thinking. But for those of you who love logical notation, we can express the dialectical nature of the inspiration of biblical texts as:

I=tc2

The biblical text (t), relative in the extent to which it approximates the truth (that is, all texts are relative), times (the constant of) final causality squared (c2) expresses the divine inspiration (I) present in/as the text.

What the heck?

Start with the constant, final causality (c). By final causality I mean God as the final end of all things. I’m not thinking of Greek philosophical arguments here. I’m contemplating Christ as the ‘telos’ or ‘end’ (of the Law, Rm 10.4, and of all things created “through and for” Christ, Col 1.15-20). I’m thinking especially of the risen-crucified Christ as in himself embodying the telos or fulfillment of creation. I’ve previously suggested that the Bible be understood in the context of Incarnation being the means of achieving God’s unitive purposes for creation, and this context makes it relatively easy to understand the inspiration of texts:

Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of one’s understanding of God’s unitive purposes for creation and view Scripture as subservient to these ends. If God is to incarnate and as an individual develop his sense of a unique identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficiently truthful to inform that development. No one develops an understanding of who they are and what their destiny is apart from these contexts. So the question of a context sufficient to shape the Incarnate Word’s embodied worldview and self-understanding is paramount, and in our view that is what Scripture is primarily about. The Word could not have been born randomly into a culture which was not an adequate means of identity formation. Creation is the context for incarnation to begin with, yes, but beyond that the construction of a suitable context for identity formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.

By ‘final causation’ (c), then, I mean the final union of creation with God in Christ, the conformity of all things to the character and intentions of Christ. I view inspiration teleologically, not just in the sense that OT narratives anticipate their fulfillment in NT realities (a kind of rhetorical teleology that any inerrantist would affirm). I mean something that demonstrates the ability of a transcendent final end to be present to and in every religious aspiration, even when they miss the mark (a compositional teleology, something no inerrantist would agree to). Previously here:

bibleartIn a word, [Scripture] must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this…

Scripture’s…function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness…

In the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed [with a view to Christlikeness], it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with.

Why is final causality squared (c2)? It is squared to represent the function of final causes in both opening creation up to the future and, interpretively, clarifying the past. The Spirit of God is present in the authors of OT Scripture orienting and opening them both toward the future (toward some realization of the truth) and then, realized in Christ, toward the past to explain, judge, and confirm the history of Israel’s own conversation. Final causation is squared as an expression of its presence both in texts prompting and calling them forward and, in Christ (the final cause/end embodied), judging and calling texts to account. As final end, God both opens texts to the future as they are composed (dialectically) and closes the question of their truth value as they are read in light of the fulfilled embodiment of that final end – Christ. This is the way I understand inspiration (I) to be fully present at work in the composition of texts (which I think Greg will appreciate) and also present in the Christological reading of those same texts.

God takes responsibility for sin – or not

spider2 - CopyBack in late spring/early summer of this year reviews of Boyd’s CWG began to surface and online discussion of the book took off. Of the reviews that were published online at the time, I don’t recall any that gave CWG all-around thumbs up. Some who passionately defend a non-violent view of the atonement nevertheless had serious concerns about core arguments and implications of Greg’s project. I suspect that has changed some, I don’t know. I’m not following the reviews at this point. I posted my own support for points I thought Greg made well alongside criticisms of weakness.

However, Greg is a friend whose ideas – even those I disagree with – I don’t mind returning to on occasion, if only because the concerns that motivate them and the passion that propels them are inspiring. Here I’d like to reflect a bit upon a particular phrase Greg uses to describe the Cross as God’s “taking responsibility for the world’s evil.” For example:

[T]he fact that the Son took responsibility for all the evil that he as Creator allowed to come to pass in his creation entails that the Father and Spirit, in their own unique ways, also took responsibility for all this evil, though they are no more morally culpable for any of it than is the Son.

Or here:

God assumed responsibility for all that he allowed to take place in his creation.

The idea derives ultimately from Greg’s belief that God creates freely, unnecessarily. That’s important, because the question of why God would take responsibility for a necessary God-world relationship (as proposed by standard Process metaphysics) never really arises. But for someone like Greg who espouses the (quite orthodox belief in the) utter gratuity of God’s choice to create, the question of God’s “taking responsibility” for the absolute mess the world introduces a challenge. Consider:

  • God creates freely and unnecessarily.
  • Creation freely corrupts itself and becomes overwhelmed by violence and suffering.

The freedom involved in the latter would be explanation enough for some, maybe most. But Greg believes that though we are endowed with the freedom to self-determine (which makes us and not God morally culpable for our individual choices), there remains an additional factor that we need to account for:

  • The eruption of evil was inevitable.

Over top all of humanity’s particular free choices stands the all-embracing statistical inevitability of sin and violence. Given the precarious condition of our origins (human weakness, finitude, ignorance, basic appetites and drives, the influence of socialization, the Satanic corruption of matter, and more), sooner or later creation would go off the rails. Greg may be an open theist who holds the future to be (partly) open, but he maintains the causal closure of the world’s descent into evil given these factors. God knows human sin and vice will inevitably erupt, and it is this inevitability that God freely creates and (I will suggest regarding his view) what God takes responsibility for.

van-gogh-pietaIt’s true of course, in an almost trivial sense, that God takes responsibility for what God does if by that we mean to say that God’s actions are fully informed, fully intended, fully acknowledged, fully his own, utterly embraced – entailments and all. But this is not news. The staunchest classical theist would affirm it.

But this is not what Greg means by saying God “takes responsibility for evil.” What Greg means, I gather, is that God assumes something approaching a moral responsibility for the world’s evil and suffering. In suffering the despair of godforsakenness, God suffers his own free choice to create, and this responsibility has a definite moral shape to it. God didn’t have to create but he did so knowing things would go desperately wrong. Thus (and this “thus” reveals the logic of God’s “responsibility” in Greg’s view) God suffers for us by suffering for having freely created us. That is at least part of the logic at work. Greg explains further:

[O]nly by affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ God-forsakenness can we affirm that God has fully entered into, fully experienced, fully embraced and fully redeemed the God-forsakenness of the world. Because the Son experienced the horror of God-forsakenness, and because the Father experienced the horror of forsaking his Son, we can affirm that “even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” [cf. Moltmann] In the nightmarish separation of the Father and Son, he writes, we can see that “the whole uproar of history,” with all of its unthinkable atrocities, is embraced “within God.” [cf. Moltmann] In other words, the authenticity of the Jesus’ abandonment on the cross means that God is a God who is entering into and embracing our hell. And its only because of this that we can be confident that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.

A few thoughts in response. First, it’s important to note that such claims as Greg makes in this last quote are nowhere found in the New Testament. Are they legitimate inferences drawn from biblical passages? Examining this question would take me outside the narrow interest of this post, and I’ve already reviewed CWG elsewhere and responded to key biblical passages (2Cor 5.21’s “God made Jesus to become sin”; Gal 3.13’s “Christ’s became a curse”; the Cry of Dereliction in Mk 15.34|Mt 27.46). Such passages needn’t imply that the Triune relations suffer the curse of godforsakeness which is the intrinsic consequence of our sin.

I am, secondly, more interested in exploring the nature of this suffering as a “taking of responsibility for evil” and the assumptions behind viewing it in such terms. True, Greg notes that God cannot be morally culpable for any of the particular evils of free agents. However, over top our particularity is the inevitability of sin and evil as such. Though God may not be responsible for the former, he is for the latter, and this gives every appearance of being moral in nature. Consider the gravity of the consequences God suffers and why. What constitutes this gravity in Greg’s project? What reality makes God’s suffering godforsakeness a “responsibility”? It would seem that since the inevitability of the depths of evil and suffering derives from God’s free choice to create, God owes it to the world (morally, not logically – given the gratuity of God’s choice to create and the wretched mess we made of ourselves) to suffer the godforsakeness we suffer.

It is important to say that this responsibility is beyond the fact that our salvation requires a demonstration of love sufficient to address our addiction and bondage to sin and violence. Here things get interesting inside Greg’s view. Certainly our created and fallen state presents natural conditions God must accommodate to rescue us from that state, (God’s redemptive manifestation to us must be embodied, human, finite – as opposed to be incarnate as a cow or a porpoise). Greg recognizes these. However, these include the particular extent and nature of God’s suffering (the reducing of God’s ad intra triune experience to the fragmentation and despair of godforsakeness). That God suffer so is entirely dictated by our condition.

But this leaves the “taking responsibility for sin” ungrounded. There’s no truth of human fallenness that makes it obvious that our rescue requires that God suffer the particular godforsakeness and despair which are the consequences for us of our evil. It appears that what ultimately grounds the necessity that God suffer in this particular godforsaken sense is the gratuity of creating a world bound inevitably to do great violence and suffer immeasurable evil. Because God is not culpable for particular human evils but must suffer infinitely to assume all human (and animal) suffering and godforsakeness, the responsibility God assumes in suffering so would be grounded antecedently in the very inevitability that supervenes upon the entire “the whole uproar of history.” This, not anything human beings require per se, appears to define why God must suffer so.

For Greg everything rides on it being the case that on the Cross God assumes this responsibility through suffering the despair of godforsakeness intrinsic to our sinful choices. The very “authenticity” of Jesus’ suffering as a redemptive act, its very ‘saving efficacy’, requires that God experience the combined sum of the world’s godforsakenness. We get a clue toward the end of the previous quote from Greg into what constitutes the link between God’s godforsakeness and our godforsakeness in terms of “responsibility.” God’s suffering must be “authentic” relative to our need. And it is only authentic if it is equivalent (same despair, same godforsakeness, same crisis of identity, same loss of hope, same pain), but infinitely so for God of course because he has the entirety of human and animal suffering to assume). Only if we perceive the Cross as being this may we have “confiden[ce] that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.” This “confidence,” for Greg, is how faith appropriates the healing, reconciling work of the Cross.

But why suppose any of this? It’s not an explicit claim of any NT writer. And it isn’t obvious that our being reconciled to God or healed from our own godforsakeness requires that God be equally as godforsaken as us. Why must our healing from godforsakeness require the multiplication of godforsakeness in God? We don’t universally assume that acts of saving or healing of an inter-personal, loving nature are only authentically transforming and redeeming if the gracious saving party shares every consequence intrinsic to the offending party’s choices.

We do agree, with Greg, that it is not anything human beings do to Jesus that saves us, rather it is what the Father is doing “behind the scenes.” But where Greg sees the Father abandoning Jesus behind the scene of the the human abandonment of Jesus, we see the Father doing something else, namely, not abandoning Jesus but empowering him to endure human rejection “for the joy set before him,” to forgive those lynching him, to offer paradise to those who entreat him. On the Cross, Jesus still “does what he sees the Father doing.” But on Greg’s view, as I understand it, Jesus sees the Father abandoning him but does something else, namely, not abandon others but forgive and offer paradise instead.

The more I’ve pondered these differences with Greg, the more I come to recognize the more fundamental difference from which our other disagreements derive. Surprisingly, it is not that Greg is a Kenoticist and we are not, nor is it that we believe in God’s undiminished triune delight and Greg does not. It is, I believe, our very different views of the human predicament. Just what is the “fallen human condition” the rescue from which we give the name “salvation” to? And how does Jesus’ dying and rising together heal that condition? For us, the notion of godforsakeness (viz., that God must, objectively speaking, become “cursed” [Gal 3.13] by experiencing the despair of ‘forsaking’ and ‘being forsaken by’ God) that informs Greg’s whole project, is the very myth we need saving from. Where, for Greg, God’s own godforsakeness constitutes our salvation, for us godforsakeness is what Jesus’ death and resurrection expose to be the myth that enslaves us – and one doesn’t expose myths by believing them.

All that said, let me shift directions here —

Part of Greg’s project involves a hermeneutical re-centering, a cruciform hermeneutic. The cruciform hermeneutic makes what happens on the Cross the hermeneutical center (or “lens”) through which everything else in the Bible is read. I’ve already reviewed why I think this is impossible, but I though I might find it helpful to turn this entire dilemma of Greg’s on its head. Instead of God taking responsibility for creating, what would happen if we view God as taking responsibility for being created? That is, in Christ, God the human being fulfills humanity’s responsibility before God to present itself humbly, obedient and trusting in the face of all the vicissitudes inherent in that nature, and fulfills human nature’s calling and purpose. In this case Jesus’ death fulfills created nature, loving and trusting God within the constraints of created finitude. Christ, the God-Man, represents creation to God, takes responsibility for being creatED (not for creatING), unites creation to God, and in so doing reconciles the world to God, not God to the world.

Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting (following James Alison) that we define the center phenomenologically as the act of faith integrating incarnation, passion, resurrection through knowledge of the One Christ – the “risen-crucified” One. These events (atonement, ministry, passion, resurrection, ascension) are all temporally distinct but aesthetically one.

vgflowersWhat do I mean by temporally distinct but aesthetically one? Take the transforming effects of beauty encountered in, say, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Cornflower and Poppies” (1887). I’ve stood before this painting many times, completely lost in the moment. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.

Consider – the hermeneutical center of its beauty is not divisible into any of the temporally distinct steps it took to produce it. Its beauty – which is what we relate to, what we believe in, that which saves us – is indivisibly one. We could (and we do) separate the painting into its contributing events (gathering and grinding the raw materials to make the colors, mixing the colors on the palette, composing the under layers, sketching the outline, the particular brush techniques used, filling in the main features, adding the final touches, and so forth). But to do this – and this is the point – is to step away from the immediate experience of its beauty.

Furthermore, no one’s experience of the beauty of this painting is reducible to a hermeneutic that views one of these steps as the primary “lens” through which the others are defined or their beauty understood. Yet this, it seems to me, is precisely what Greg attempts theologically, and it is aesthetically violent. There is no possible way for faith to apprehend Christ in only one of any of the contributing events of his existence as a human being (incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection). To try to elevate one hermeneutically is to do violence to them all.

In the end, then, there is no cruciform hermeneutic, that is, no hermeneutic of transforming faith that derives from the Cross. There is “a” hermeneutic – a way to read/interpret life – which one can derive merely from the Cross, yes. We see it in the two on the road to Emmaus before they recognize the risen Christ, and we note it in the disciples crouched in fear and uncertainty before the risen Christ arrives to say “Peace.” But a cruciform hermeneutic that takes the Cross as a saving act of love through which lens all else is to be interpreted? Quite impossible. It’s impossible because to read the Cross as a “saving event” is already to read it through the resurrrection. There’s no getting around it. The Cross only becomes (viz., is revealed to be) a saving act when faith interprets the Cross in light of the resurrection. We wouldn’t possibly know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself apart from the interpretive light of the risen Jesus. So all of Greg’s descriptions of the Cross as God’s love stooping to accommodate us in our weakness, etc., – all true – are by definition post-resurrection readings of the Cross.

So, the hermeneutical center cannot be a single proposition or event, but rather must be faith perceiving itself as apprehended by the risen-slaughtered One, and so not taking responsibility for having created if that means God must become cursed and share in the despair of godforsakenness. There is only need for that (and arguably not even then) if one insists on a reason to believe, or for the meaning for faith, or for redemption, that derives solely from the Cross (i.e., the Cross interpreted linearly with its doors closed to the resurrection). But that would be like looking to the weight required to press organic raw materials until they yield their beautiful reds, yellows, and blues as “the” explanation for everything else that goes into a Van Gogh painting, including why it’s beautiful.

The risen-slaughtered one

lamgods_gent3 modified modified

I was recently introduced to James Alison, Catholic theologian and author, well-known for his interpretation of Rene Girard’s thought. To get acquainted with him I picked up his first book, Knowing Jesus (1994), which addresses the question of what it means to know Christ. We’re associate knowing Christ with talk of a ‘personal relationship’ with God or with agreeing to fundamental beliefs about who Jesus was. Alison pushes through and beyond these to expose what he feels knowledge of Christ involves.

The book is full of profound insights. I do not intend to review them all, but I’d like to explore a portion of his first chapter in which he discusses the relationship between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and how these remain united in the transformative knowing of Christ.

As I picked up this book, I had in mind 2Cor 2.2 where Paul tells the Corinthians that when he first came to Corinth he “resolved to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” I’ve been pondering this statement of Paul’s coming out of having reviewed Boyd’s CWG in which Boyd refers to this statement as evidence of a particular cruciformity, but having discovered important weaknesses in Boyd’s work didn’t mean Paul’s statement didn’t continue to occupy my thoughts and challenge me. So I was happy to find Alison’s first chapter at least in part concerned with how Christ-crucified figured into knowing Christ. I’m not sure I understand Alison’s insight, but I hope thinking out loud on it here will bring some clarity. Feel free to offer your comments:

Now what that means is that the risen Lord is simultaneously the dead-and-risen Lord. Jesus as he appeared to the disciples was not, as it were, the champion who has showered down after the match; he appeared on a completely different level. If there’s any phrase that comes near expressing this, it is ‘the living dead’. Not, obviously, in the Hollywood sense of someone caught in a time warp between being dead and going to an eternal rest, whether up or down, but in the sense that the resurrection life was the giving back of the whole human life, leading up to and including that death has been conquered, that the resurrection life isn’t on the same level as death, just cancelling it out, as it were. The resurrection life includes the human death of Jesus. He is always present after the resurrection simultaneously as crucified and as risen Lord.

Just in case you think I’m making this up, may I refer you to the Easter Preface number III in the Roman Missal. There we are told that Jesus is ‘still our priest, our advocate who always pleads our cause. Christ is the victim who dies no more, the Lamb once slain who lives forever’. What the Latin of the Preface is fact says is, ‘agnus qui vivit semper occisus’, which literally means ‘who lives forever slain’ – closer to the idea of the living dead than the English translation. The same idea comes up in all those hymns in the book of Revelation, where the seer sees Jesus as ‘a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (Rev. 5.6). This is well captured in certain medieval pictures, such as Van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ [opening picture of this blog post], or Grunwald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (second picture of this blog post). The artists represent the living Lamb, standing with a banner, or an empty cross, to symbolize the resurrection. Out of the Lamb’s slaughtered neck blood flows into a chalice. That is about as good an image of the simultaneously crucified and risen Lord as we can manage. It is the slaughtered one who is made alive, given back in the resurrection. It is not as though the resurrection cured him of being slaughtered – (he was in a bad way but God bandaged him up) – the gratuity of the resurrection is what gives him back as the slaughtered one. It is here that the devotion to Christ crucified has its place in the lives of some of the saints. It is here that stigmatists like St. Francis or Padre Pio bear witness to the life of the risen Lord. The mistake is when people oppose the crucified Lord to the risen Lord, imagining perhaps that ‘a true spiritual life requires a balance between these two’. There is no opposition, for the presence of the crucified Lord is within the presence of the risen Lord It is as crucified Lord that Jesus is risen. As we will see, the presence of Jesus as [the] risen-slaughtered one is key to the sense in which the resurrection is the presence of forgiveness, is the forgiveness of sins.

The last of the resurrection appearances to a person, making of that person an apostle, an authentic witness to the resurrection, was the rather strange, sui generis, appearance to Paul. Strange and sui generis because Paul had had, as far as we know, no contact with Jesus of Nazareth before his death. That is, he had no personal historical recollection of the life of Jesus, or his teaching, to be deepened, transformed and authenticated by the appearance of the risen Lord. Paul’s relationship to Jesus was simply that of trying to wipe out, out of zeal for the Lord of hosts, the false ‘Way’ that was spreading in the wake of Jesus’ death. Saul, as he then was, would have been convinced that when it came to persecuting, it mattered entirely whose side you were on. It would be, for instance, wicked to be part of a foreign persecution of, say, the Maccabees, because that was to persecute God’s own faithful ones. On the other hand, it was certainly right to persecute, in the name of the Lord, those who were undermining the true faith in the God of Moses.

Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus as the persecuted one. ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9.5). That was the impact of the risen Lord on Paul – not the triumphant one, the victorious one, but the persecuted one. The dynamic is the same as I have been describing with relations to the appearances to the disciples in John and Luke. The risen Lord is the persecuted-and-risen Lord. Or rather, the impact made on Paul is that when he perceives that it is God whom he has been persecuting, in the name of God, it is the presence of God as persecuted that is, to him, forgiveness; that is to him the possibility of an entirely new life, a radical reordering of everything he had believed. The gratuitous presence was that of the crucified one. Not as accusation, but as forgiveness. Because of the persecution in which he was involved, Paul was able to perceived his involvement in the persecution of God, and was thus able to receive a huge change of life, a change by which he came to worship God as victim: to preach Christ crucified, and to know only Christ, and him crucified. Again, the risen Lord has risen as the crucified one.

lamgods_gent modifiedNow that, the simultaneous presence of the risen life in the crucified one, is what is called a mystery. Please notice that a ‘mystery’ is not here something obscurantist, or intellectually dubious, as when someone runs out of logical things to say, and retreats into talking piffle as a cover-up I think I’m saying something that is making reasonable use of categories we possess, but to indicate something of a density that is not part of our normal experience. I’m saying that the risen Jesus is risen simultaneously crucified to death, and living, both of which are categories we can understand separately, but which it would never normally occur to us to imagine together. It is not merely a question of simultaneity, as if I were claiming that two mutually exclusive states were simultaneously present – some sort of paradox, like a room which is simultaneously noisy and silent. I am saying that the resurrection was the giving back of the life and the death at the same time. If you like, the resurrection life is not on the same level as ordinary life, which is annihilated at death, rather it is able to include both the life and the death which concludes it, precisely because it is the free giving and giving back of both. Once again, it is the element of pure gratuity in the giving and giving back which is what is not on the same level as life or death, and is thus able to make both present simultaneously.

I ask your patience if this appears to be bizarre. It is, I would suggest, the experience that is at the center of the Christian faith, from which starting point the other pivotal doctrines – of the Incarnation and the Trinity – were discovered. (Bold emphasis mine)

As I said, coming out of having reviewed Boyd’s CWG, I had been thinking on 2Cor 2.2 (“resolved only to know Christ and him crucified”) as a proposed cruciform center to reading the Bible (per CWG). I described in that review why I think the Cross cannot comprise any sort of center (at least not in the terms proposed by Boyd). A wider, more inclusive center comprising the entirety of the incarnate career seemed to me to be more in line with the NT’s apostolic train of thought. In light of that, I take Alison’s insights to suggest that when Paul says he resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified, defining a hermeneutical center to reading the Scriptures was the last thing on his mind. If we read Paul in light of other similar statements he makes (Phil 3.10), and in light of his issues with the Corinthian believers, it becomes increasingly clear that his resolve ‘to know nothing but Christ crucified’ describes the transformational experience of NT faith/gospel (as we receive it from apostolic witness) and not a conviction about how to read the Bible.

If we must speak of a hermeneutical center, perhaps we should say that ‘transformational experience’ (of the risen-slaughtered one) just 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, a ‘reactor’, or (thank you James Loder) an asymmetrical relational unity in which the God who doesn’t need us (i.e., who creates freely, ex nihilo) refuses to be without us:

Needing nothing, you create me.
Wanting nothing, you desire me.
Full beyond measure, you pursue me.
Absolute, you invite me in.

As I read Alison, I began to wonder what it would even mean for a Christian believer to know and relate to Christ – a living person – solely (or primarily, or centrally) within the event of his death. One can’t “know” a dead person. One only “knows” the living – as living. So we only ‘know’ Christ crucified by knowing the risen Jesus. This is not merely to say that we only know what his death means as we contemplate it from his resurrection, though that is true. It also means it is only in experiencing him as risen and living that we experience the virtuous reality of his death.

I’m not sure how to unpack this for any so-called cruciform hermeneutic, but it seems to me that “knowing Christ and him crucified” doesn’t at all amount to making a particular understanding of the Cross the center around which one reads the Scriptures. Perhaps I’m missing the point because I’m more teleological-minded and more concerned with the concrete (existential) nature of transformation. When I read 2Cor 2.2 I see Paul resolving upon a kind of experience in light of alternatives being pursued by some Corinthians (some gnostic-leaning, some with an over-realized eschatology, some believing they had already realized an angelic-resurrected form of existence). It doesn’t seem to me that he is here thinking of a way to interpret the Old Testament as much as he is simply identifying the Jesus of his experience to be the real, historical Jesus. The Corinthian gnostic might claim, “I know Christ who ____” and fill in the blank with an attempt to define who Jesus is and what his life means apart from the event of his death. To this Paul resolves (2Cor 2.2) upon identifying the real, historical, embodied, Jesus as the living Jesus he worships and knows. He’s not advancing a hermeneutic per se. He’s advancing the identity of the risen Jesus of the Church’s faith with the historical, crucified Jesus. It is the Church’s experience and worship of the risen-slaughtered One which forms the center of how we read the Bible.

While I think Alison’s points address my concern regarding 2Cor 2.2, I think he says far more which I hope to reflect upon in due course.

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 and shapes faith. The Cross shapes a movement toward an end or telos. But the Cross can’t be that end, not if Christ is risen. One way to expose these issues to clearer contemplation would be 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 Cross as end. 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 like the 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.

Face to face with Greg

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Many thanks to Greg Boyd for taking time to respond (his Part 1 and Part 2) to my comments (Parts 1-4) reviewing aspects of his new Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG). I went on to post some relevant follow-ups as well:

● How Jesus viewed his cross
● My God, My God, how have we misinterpreted you?
● Saved by joy

Our blog here occupies a very quiet place on the edge of the edge of the blogging world, so it’s nice to have Greg engage me over at ReKnew in a response to my review. I know he’s busy and I appreciate the effort. Several of my comments (together with, I suspect, the prolonged nature of our objection to key aspects of Greg’s theology) seem to have gotten under Greg’s skin. Maybe not, but if they have, then I hope I can bring some clarity to our differences. I won’t take up each point in his responses, but there are a few points I should comment on for clarity’s sake.

First–that I attack Greg’s integrity.
Greg senses that I’ve leveled an ad hominem attack on him by questioning his integrity regarding his use of (his) Trinity & Process (T&P) in support of claims he makes in CWG when the supporting arguments in T&P are positions Greg no longer himself holds. I believe I said this seemed to be an issue of academic integrity, and I went on to explain that what I had in mind was what I understood to be a standard of good scholarship, namely, that when a recognized scholar departs significantly from his own published work, some account/defense of the reasons for the change in mind is expected. I haven’t suggested Greg knowingly plotted to deceive readers. I’m just saying that there’s a level of explanation missing from Greg’s ongoing work relative to his earlier work in T&P that I understand to be a part of good scholarship. It is a bit surprising also to hear someone of Greg’s recognition admit that it wouldn’t matter what the philosophical arguments were in support of older positions he no longer holds because utter philosophical nonsense would be “a small price to pay.” Do I criticize this? Well, yes. I don’t mean thereby to attack Greg’s faith, character or sincerity. It’s just my understanding of a canon of scholarship that includes managing one’s intellectual journey a bit differently. If I’m wrong about what makes for good, responsible scholarship, more’s the pity.

I do take it to be a given (well-documented here) that Greg’s present views are incompatible with convictions at the core of T&P – namely, the abiding nature of God’s essential triune ‘experience’. If Greg really thinks there’s no significant change in his thought relative to this core and he’s not interested in arguments to the contrary, well, so be it. But if he is ever interested in batting those questions about, I’d be happy to pitch him a few.

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Second—not defining ‘violence’.
Regarding Greg’s not defining ‘violence’, he decided against it. I get that. My point in bringing it up was that much of the ongoing conversation (pro and con) regarding CWG turns precisely on what one thinks goes into making a thought, intention, or act ‘violent’. It would surely help if Greg (and others) would be explicit. Take Bruxy Cavey, for example. At a recent Woodland Hills Church CWG Q&A session, Greg was somewhat surprised when Bruxy (disagreeing with Greg’s view that Peter used his irrevocable God-given spiritual powers to kill Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5]) said he thought God took Ananias and Sapphira out of the equation and that this was in God’s perspective a right, wise, and loving thing to do. The interesting point is that Bruxy and Greg are equally committed to ascribing zero violence to God. So the only reason Bruxy can see God’s taking Ananias and Sapphira out of the equation as wise and loving and Greg not see it this way is because the two of them define ‘violence’ differently. The difference won’t show up in genocidal passages (which sort of passage Greg suggests to me was one reason why he chose not to define violence), but it will and does show up in other controversial passages (like Ananias & Sapphira) that are central to Greg’s thesis. As it so happens, in recently attempting to get people to be explicit about what really constitutes ‘violence’, I was surprised to discover little general interest in the question and little agreement over what constitutes an act’s ‘violence’. I think this is pretty significant.

Third—making a certain view of the Cross the ‘exclusive’ center.
Greg points out that I’m wrong about saying he suggests the Cross “exclusively” defines the hermeneutical center. Fair enough. But I didn’t mean to suggest that Greg takes no notice of the incarnation or the resurrection as definitive of the Cross. I was referring to Greg’s positing a choice between taking the Cross over the life of Christ as the defining center. I’m referring, of course, to Greg’s own arguments for why the entire life of Christ (considered as a whole) cannot successfully be considered the center because it’s too broad a center and it involves too many disagreements. The Cross, Greg argues, is a narrower and more agreed upon thematic center. It’s that particular choice I was speaking to. That is – our options are exclusively binary – either Christ-centered (taking the entire Christ-event as the center) or Crucicentric (taking the Cross as the center). I didn’t suggest Greg doesn’t integrate everything outside the Cross, I was only commenting on his reasons for why the Cross, and not the entirety of Christ’s life, be the center.

Fourth—not evaluating the lengthy case Greg makes for his understanding of the Cross.
Greg chides me a bit for not evaluating the lengthy case he makes for his particular understanding of the Cross (as opposed to focusing on the Cry of Dereliction as a tiny aspect of the Cross). I confess I’m baffled by this. I actually have commented on the principles of divine accommodation, spiritual warfare (basically agreeing with the reality of creaturely choice and the nature of created opposition to God, but stopping short of making Satan a functional demiurge), and semi-autonomous power. But most reviewers focus criticism on what they find most objectionable, and that’s what I did.

It seems to me that if one places the Cross at the center of one’s theology, what one believes the Cross to be defines that center. True, Greg says a great many things at length about the implications of the Cross, but it seemed clear to me as I read CWG that the Cross understood as God’s own experience of godforsakenness and self-estrangement was the center of gravity around which the rest of the work revolves. I focused on this aspect because, though Greg didn’t spend hundreds of pages on it, by the very nature of its relevance, ‘divine abandonment’ constitutes the center of the center. Yes, of course the Cross is also an ‘accommodation’ to our fallenness. Yes, it’s also ‘warfare’. But the divine act in/on the Cross which makes its accommodating act an engagement with the fallen powers (which I don’t disagree the Cross is) is precisely the divine abandonment that Greg posits. It’s this reading of the Cross that I focused my objections on because that’s what I find objectionable.

Now, in his response to me Greg seems to be suggesting that viewing the Father’s abandonment of the Son is a minor and negotiable point because it receives only a fragment of CWG’s 1,400 pages. If this is the case then many of us are truly dumbfounded, for we assumed Greg’s view of the divine abandonment “behind the scenes” which defines the Cross was indeed central to his thesis. Now it seems Greg is acknowledging that how he interprets the Cry of Dereliction isn’t definitive of the Cross that defines the center. If that be the case, then – forgive me Greg – this really is a poorly written book, because nobody reading vol. 2 would think that the divine abandonment which Greg defines as the truth of what’s going on “behind the scenes” is for Greg a negotiable, non-essential aspect of the cruciform thesis. It’s not always about volume, i.e., how many pages one spends discussing a question. It’s where you’re standing in relation to the whole when you say what you say, even it’s a fragment of the whole.

If I was the only one who thought any of this, I would never have reviewed CWG to begin with, but it was the overwhelming push back on precisely this aspect of the book that encouraged me to express my own thoughts too.

facetoface2Fifth—on the ‘intrinsic’ nature of the consequences of our choices.
Then there’s the issue of the intrinsic nature of the consequences of our choices. Greg argues that Jesus suffers the death consequences intrinsic to our sinful choices. Now, I question the very notion that Christ can suffer any intrinsic consequences of our sinful choices, especially if, as Greg says, those consequences are ‘organic’ to the choice. If organic to the choice, then – I say – organic to the chooser. Indeed, it’s undeniable that the despair and godforsakenness Greg holds to be intrinsic to our sinful choices are already invariably experienced by those who make those choices.

Greg apparently questions this line of reasoning (if I’m following him) and offers a strange defense of the transferability of the intrinsic consequences of one person’s choices onto another subject. Here’s the analogy: Joe gets drunk and passes out on some train tracks. Bill steps in to pull Joe away from an oncoming train. Joe is saved but Bill gets stuck and is killed by the train. In Greg’s view, Bill experiences the consequences that were ‘intrinsic’ to Joe’s choices. But this seems mistaken. Getting struck by a train is not intrinsic to the choice to get drunk; nor is getting struck by a train intrinsic to passing out drunk on train tracks. But, one might reason, Bill gets struck by a train only because Joe was there drunk and in the way of an oncoming train, so surely Bill suffers ‘what Joe would have suffered’ had Bill left Joe on the tracks. Not exactly, but let’s go with that. Even so, this is not to transfer to Bill what is ‘intrinsic’ to Joe’s choice. On the contrary, Bill experiences the consequences intrinsic to his choice, namely, to risk his safety to save Joe. But that risk is not intrinsic to Joe’s decision to get drunk.

Sixth—penal-substitution.
This brings up my comments that Greg’s view appears to me to maintain a penal-substitutionary flavor or orientation, a point about which Greg expresses some disappointment in my reading of him. My reasons for reading Greg this way are documented here and elsewhere by others who have reviewed CWG. No need to repeat all the points. I’ll just say a few things to clarify. First, I could of course be reading Greg wrong, but I’m not the only one to see CWG as offering a version of penal-substitutionary atonement. Virtually all those involved in recent online conversations pick up the same penal assumptions at work. Secondly, Greg feels that since God doesn’t transfer our actual guilt onto Jesus and doesn’t emotionally vent rage upon Jesus, and since Greg doesn’t articulate what does go on in the Cross in forensic terms, he’s clear of any penal associations. However, transfer of guilt and feelings of rage are not an essential, defining aspect of a penal model of atonement.

It would be interesting to pursue this more, but I’ll close this point by saying, thirdly, that another reason the force of Greg’s response to me on this point is surprising is that elsewhere online recently, Greg asked those of us in the room to clarify why we were all objecting to his book on the grounds that it offers a non-Girardian, penal view of the Cross. I responded to him in precisely the terms I’ve done on this post, saying:

Of course, as you say, the Father turns Jesus ‘over to the crowds’ (i.e. surrenders Jesus to human violence). Everybody agrees on that much. But that’s not “all [you’re] saying.” You’re saying that in addition to our abandoning Jesus, the Father himself abandons Jesus and the pain of the latter abandonment is what does the saving work. But there’s no logical connect between God’s turning Jesus over to be abandoned by the world and God’s abandoning Jesus. Why must such abandonment occur? The intrinsic death consequences to all sin. But this just is PSA. You have a softer articulation of it because you emphasize the love that motivates it and you also don’t limit it to the elect. But it’s still the same exchange. Why *must* there be satisfaction of the so-called intrinsic consequences of sin? What is forgiveness after all? Why cannot God welcome us home without suffering his own antithetical negation? You already grant that God forgives us entirely apart from such abandonment. So follow the logic of that through – what kind of love is capable of ‘forgiving’ us without suffering self-inflicted self-negation but is not capable of being present with us in transforming ways without such negation?

To which Greg responded (to me and the group):

Oh, okay. For the first time I think I may see how you construe my view as PSA. I have been utterly baffled up to this point. I’ll have to think about this some more and I suspect it will need [a] separate post to address, but I suspect the problem comes from different understandings of “abandonment” and why Jesus had to die.

Ya think? My point exactly, which is why I’m confused over why Greg in his ReKnew response now seems at all surprised or bothered by my describing his position as reducible to penal-substitutionary assumptions. He had already agreed to understanding why I and others were reading him that way.

Seventh—regarding whether God’s experience of himself is “reduced” to godforsakenness.
I expressed my objection to Greg’s view of the Father forsaking the Son, and of the divine persons being “estranged from one another,” in terms of Greg “reducing” God to godforsakenness. Greg objected to the word “reduce” here and insists he doesn’t reduce God to godforsakenness, and he wonders why I would think he holds such a position. To clarify, I didn’t say Greg reduces God simpliciter to godforsakenness. I said Greg reduces God’s triune “experience of himself” to godforsakenness and self-estrangement. We’re only talking about God’s “experience.” Why? Because Greg is the one who makes the distinction (vol. 2, chapter on divine withdrawal) between God’s essential unity of being (or “existence”) as such and God’s “experience” of his own unity. And Greg builds his view of divine abandonment on the premise that God has no experience of his essential triune being that transcends the world. In existential terms (terms Greg introduces to accommodate the compatibility of godforsakenness with God’s essential unity), God is reduced to the pain of godforsakenness, i.e., there is no transcendent experience Father and Son enjoy that is not affected by the Cross. That’s what I mean by “reduced to.”

I appreciate and admire many things about Greg. None of my comments was meant to impugn his character, his love for God, or his passion for people. I’m only interested in the content of his views, particularly his Christology, in relation to his Trinitarian arguments in T&P (Trinity & Process), and I encourage Greg to consider integrating T&P into his present views in a serious, more thoughtful way. That would be an interesting read!

(If there are any worries about the picture opening this post, it’s a picture of two boxers going toe to toe – just in case anyone thought it was Greg and I.)

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 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 these shall we?

(1) There’s no argument in France’s quote. Yes, if we take Jesus to be alluding to Ps 22, we understand Jesus’ pain as not indicative of his belief that God had in fact forsaken him. 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 forsaken by God thinks Jesus is not experiencing the agony of being crucified.

(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.

In response, I suggest that it’s completely understandable that a dying person would 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. I suggest that given the intensity of his sufferings and the nearness of death, it would be unusual to hear him cry out to God in a language other than Aramaic (his heart-language).

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 (Hebrew or Aramaic) Jesus cried out 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 argue 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. 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 (besides the Cry) to Ps 22. I take it to be virtually certain that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22.

However, Greg offers yet a further reflection. Let us grant, 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 godforsakenness” 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 godforsakenness, or not? His cruciform thesis itself requires that Jesus’ not simply confuse his agony and falsely conclude that God had forsaken him. But Greg’s proposed reading of the Ps 22 (on the assumption that Jesus is alluding to it) concedes that God in fact never abandons its author. The author only temporarily loses his composure and misinterprets his suffering. This, however, 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 suspicion 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 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 godforsakenness which gives Jesus’ sufferings their 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’ is required either to make sense of Jesus’ understanding of his own suffering or to give his suffering its 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 the 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!

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 godforsakenness? 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 godforsakenness.

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.

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. They 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 and that we’re not going to excise those passages from the Bible because they provide an abiding example for our instruction than to argue a particular inspiration of those texts qua texts.

● 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.