Review: The case for ‘open theism’

19 January 2018

Many Christians today, it seems, are uncomfortable with the traditional view of God as all-controlling, and are exploring alternatives that claim a biblical foundation. The view commonly known as ‘the open view’ of God is filling the gap for many, and this book sets it out. It is:

The Openness Of God: A Biblical Challenge To The Traditional Understanding Of God by Clark H. Pinnock et al (Paternoster, 1994).   

Openness of God #1852It’s a powerful case for the ‘openness’ position. That position holds that God has sovereignly chosen to limit himself in relation to us, his creatures, granting us freedom of choice, and opting to not normally interfere with natural processes or human decisions. At the same time, he is steering things in the background towards the fulfilment of his ultimate purpose of an earth where his will is done ‘as in heaven’. In doing so, he constantly adjusts to human choices and sometimes changes his mind.

The five contributors handle different aspects. Richard Rice establishes the view’s biblical foundations. John Sanders looks at historical factors that shaped the traditional view, especially the harmful effect of Greek philosophy. Clark Pinnock shows how the Open View dovetails with the usual categories of systematic theology. William Hasker considers it from a Christian philosophical angle. And David Basinger looks at its practical effects on key aspects of Christian living: prayer, knowing God’s will, how we account for evil, approach social problems and fulfil our evangelistic responsibilities.

I personally embraced this position some years ago, and recommend this book as a fine introduction to it. It could change your life radically!

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

People who believe that God cannot change his mind sometimes pray in ways that would require God to do exactly that.  (32)

The Scriptures contain such vast and varied material that it is not difficult to surround an idea with biblical quotations. The crucial question is whether the idea is faithful to the overall biblical portrait of God—the picture that emerges from the full range of biblical evidence.  (109)

The view of God and his relation to the world presented in this book…expresses two basic convictions: love is the most important quality we attribute to God, and love is more than care and commitment; it involves being sensitive and responsive as well.  (114)

Two streams of biblical evidence support an interactive view of God’s relation to the world. One consists of statements that affirm in one way or another that God is responsive to what happens in the creaturely world, that what happens there affects God somehow—by evoking a certain emotion, a change in attitude, a change in plans. The other consists of statements that indicate creaturely freedom in one way or another. These include various divine warnings and promises and calls to repentance, as well as fairly straightforward assertions that presuppose creaturely alternatives.  (147)

The biblical descriptions of divine repentance indicate that God’s plans are exactly that—plans or possibilities that he intends to realize. They are not ironclad decrees that fix the course of events and preclude all possible variation.  (256)

Some construe these denials [Num 23:19 and 1 Sam 15:29] that God will change his mind as general assertions of divine immutability, but this is not the case. For one thing, the word repent in both instances is used synonymously with the word lie. The point is not that God never changes, but that God never says one thing while fully intending to do something else. Only in this limited sense of the word does God not “repent.”  (340)

To summarize, at times God simply does things, acting on his own initiative and relying solely on his own power. Sometimes he accomplishes things through the cooperation of human agents, sometimes he overcomes creaturely opposition to accomplish things, sometimes he providentially uses opposition to accomplish something, and sometimes his intentions to do something are thwarted by human opposition.  (405)

The cross was God’s action. He was working in Christ to accomplish our reconciliation. Appreciating this fact, many Christian scholars now perceive the suffering of Calvary not as something Jesus offers to God on human behalf, still less as something God inflicts on Jesus (instead of on other human beings), but as the activity of God himself.  (500)

While proponents of divine openness emphasize the biblical evidence that God is affected by what happens in the world (suffers) and that he changes his mind (repents), they fully accept the biblical affirmations of divine changelessness. They apply the “changeless” statements to God’s existence and character, to his love and reliability. They apply the “changing” statements to God’s actions and experience.  (536)

The view of God worked out in the early church, the “biblical-classical synthesis,” has become so commonplace that even today most conservative theologians simply assume that it is the correct scriptural concept of God and thus that any other alleged biblical understanding of God (such as the one we are proposing) must be rejected.  (675)

Arguing from what is “fitting” for God to be (theoprepes), significant aspects of the biblical revelation (such as suffering and temporality) were revised to fit this understanding. Though they had good intentions in applying the ideas of immutability and impassibility, they used them in an absolute sense and so distorted the faithfulness and love of the biblical God. In the end the true understanding of the divine nature was derived from metaphysics and the biblical revelation was made to conform to it.  (925)

Calvin followed his feudal culture in interpreting divine kingship as domination and control so that “nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.”  (1053)

In Christian theology we are not dealing with just any old concept of God, but with the surprising God and Father of our Lord Jesus. This is a God who does not remain at a safe distance, worrying about his own honor, but one who bares his holy arm and rescues humankind through sharing their distress and affliction. We are not dealing with an unapproachable deity but with God who has a human face and who is not indifferent to us but is deeply involved with us in our need.  (1193)

Though no power can stand against him, God wills the existence of creatures with the power of self-determination. This means that God is a superior power who does not cling to his right to dominate and control but who voluntarily gives creatures room to flourish.  (1342)

In an attempt to preserve the notion of God’s power as total control, some advocate what they call biblical compatibilism, the idea that one can uphold genuine freedom and divine determinism at the same time. This is sleight of hand and does not work.  (1362)

To say that God hates sin while secretly willing it, to say that God warns us not to fall away though it is impossible, to say that God loves the world while excluding most people from an opportunity of salvation, to say that God warmly invites sinners to come knowing all the while that they cannot possibly do so—such things do not deserve to be called mysteries when that is just a euphemism for nonsense.  (1366)

Past, present and future are real to God. This underlies the biblical claim that God is an agent who works in history, who makes plans and carries them out, who remembers the past and gives promises about the future.  (1442)

Total foreknowledge would jeopardize the genuineness of the divine-human relationship. What kind of dialogue is it where one party already knows what the other will say and do? I would not call this a personal relationship.  (1458)

Calvinism is distinctly unappealing as an account of our personal relationship with God.  (1724)

Since we believe that God greatly respects our freedom of choice, all of us find it quite reasonable to assume that God will at times refrain from doing all that he would like to do for us until we personally request such assistance.  (1958)

Since we do not believe that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future, it makes no sense for us to think in terms of some perfect, preordained plan for our lives and, hence, to worry about whether we are still within it. Accordingly, we need never feel—no matter what has happened in the past—that we must now settle for “second best”.  (1996)

We, unlike proponents of specific sovereignty, need not assume that some divine purpose exists for each evil that we encounter. We need not, for example, assume when someone dies that God “took him home” for some reason, or that the horrors many experience in this world in some mysterious way fit into God’s perfect plan.  (2068)

In his theodicy Calvin uses circular reasoning and equivocation, resorts to name-calling and, when he gives up on rational argument, appeals to mystery.  (2324)

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Left Behind? Yes, please! – Who’s taken and who stays?

19 January 2018

I was about ten years old. I’d gone to bed at the usual time and I think I must have slumbered a little. But now I was wide awake and my ears were straining for the usual sounds of my parents downstairs—the murmur of conversation, the radio, footsteps on the kitchen lino.

The silence was absolute and a terrible fear gripped me: maybe Jesus had returned while I slept and had raptured Mum and Dad. I was clear, even at that stage of my childhood, that I still hadn’t made a personal commitment to Christ and that therefore, were he to come again, I’d be left behind to suffer the horrors of the Great Tribulation.

Saying_GoodbyeThe relief that overwhelmed me when I heard a cough downstairs is indescribable. Phew! They hadn’t been taken after all, and I hadn’t been left behind! Oh, wow! And yes, I really must think seriously about taking the step of becoming a Christian!

This scenario reflected our Brethren affiliation. My parents, raised as Methodists, had ‘got saved’ and joined the Brethren during my father’s army service in World War II. So I was drip-fed Darby, dispensationalism and the Scofield Reference Bible from being a toddler. There’s security in a system, and for years we remained comfortable in its embrace, ignorant of any other way of understanding the Scriptures and the purpose of God. Meanwhile, at the age of twelve I made my commitment to Christ—and thereafter slept more securely.

I ditched Darby, dispensationalism and the Scofield Bible while at university. That was around 1960, the period when the Puritan writers were being rediscovered in a big way, and I found their solid theology and amillennial eschatology both heart-warming and intellectually convincing. While I never embraced fully-fledged Calvinism, there was certainly no way I could ever return to the old system because everything I read in the Bible seem to contradict it—like the ‘left behind’ idea.

That some will be left behind at Christ’s return is not, of course, in question. Jesus himself made that clear in Matthew 24: ‘Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left (v40-41). The question is, if one’s a baddy and the other’s a goody, which is taken and which is left? To some it seems obvious that the goody is the one snatched away to better things, while the baddy is left behind to feel the heat. After all, if, when Jesus returns, the righteous will be ‘caught up…to meet the Lord in the air’,[1] these are clearly the ones being ‘taken’, which leaves the wicked as those left behind. Obvious.

But it isn’t obvious at all! In fact every indication is to the contrary: that the wicked are the ones taken and that it’s the righteous who are left behind.

Take again the Matthew 24 passage quoted above: ‘one will be taken and the other left’. The verses before it draw a parallel between the coming of the Lord and the arrival of the flood in Noah’s day: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man’ (v37). So what happened in Noah’s day? His wicked contemporaries were living life as normal ‘until the flood came and took them all away’ (v39). That leaves righteous Noah and his family as the ones left behind to enjoy the safety of the Ark and a new life in the post-diluvian order. And Jesus continues, ‘That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left (v39-41). The meaning is unmistakable: the wicked are taken, the righteous are left behind; baddies go, goodies stay.

So how do we square that with the ‘rapture’ passage in 1 Thessalonians? Very easily. Let’s look at it—and please note carefully the two italicised words ‘coming’ and ‘meet’, which are the key to its message, as we shall see:

‘We who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven…and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever’ (v15-17).

New Testament scholars are agreed that Paul is here using a metaphor that all his readers were familiar with: the regular procedure observed when a king or emperor paid an official visit to a town in his kingdom.

There was a set pattern to it. First, in the months before the visit the citizens would repair the approach-road. They would fill in the potholes and level off the bumps so that the monarch could drive into town in dignity, without being thrown around in his chariot. This is what John the Baptist meant—with a moral application—when he urged people to ‘prepare the way for the Lord’.[2]

Then, when the big day arrived, the town’s leading citizens, excited and in their finery, would pass through the city gates and walk a short distance out of town to meet the king on the road and formally welcome him. That done, they would turn around, join his retinue and accompany him back into town where all could cheer and admire him. In the everyday Greek of the period there were standard terms for parts of this procedure. The king’s official visit, for instance, was called his parousia, and the action of the city dignitaries in going out to accompany him back into town was called the apantesis.[3]

Both were familiar terms in Paul’s day, and he inserts them into his description of the Lord’s coming, where they govern its meaning. They are the words italicised in the quotation above. The ‘coming of the Lord’ (v15) is his parousia and our going out ‘to meet the Lord in the air’ (v17) is the apantesis.

The whole point of this metaphor is that the king is coming to town—Jesus is returning to the earth. The emphasis is on his coming, not on our going. Our going—being ‘caught up’ or ‘raptured’—is just our brief sortie out of town. We are caught up to meet him on the aerial road and there to welcome him, but not to then go off with him to heaven or wherever. No, this is an apantesis. He doesn’t turn around; we do. We turn around and accompany him back to the earth, an earth instantly cleansed, while we are ‘out of town’, by the fire of divine judgment and remodelled into the ‘new earth’ fit to welcome the King and be the eternal abode of his righteous people.[4] There, only righteousness will dwell, because everything and everyone that defiles will have been removed—‘taken’—leaving the glorious new environment to be enjoyed for ever by those who are ‘left’ in the presence of the King: ‘God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.’[5]

This pattern—the wicked taken and the righteous left—finds an echo in the parables of Jesus. Take the one about the wheat and the weeds. At harvest-time the weeds are first removed from the field, leaving behind the wheat to be gathered into the master’s barn. Jesus himself goes on to spell out what that means:

‘The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’[6]

The baddies are taken; the goodies are left to shine. It’s the same with the parable of the dragnet. The fishermen separate the bad items from the good fish, leaving the latter to be put to good use: ‘This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’[7]

To me, all this combines to settle the issue. To be taken is what we definitely don’t want, because that’s the way that the bad fish, the weeds, the baddies, the wicked go. No, we want to be left behind in the cleansed and renewed society that will forever be one of fellowship between the Lord and his redeemed people.

Oh dear. Now somebody’s going to have to write a whole new series of novels…

Footnotes

  1. 1 Thessalonians 4:17
  2. Luke 3:4-5, quoting Isaiah.
  3. ‘When a dignitary paid an official visit (parousia) to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called the apantesis.’ (F.F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, vol 45, p102)
  4. See Romans 8:19-23; 2 Peter 3:10-13
  5. Revelation 21:3
  6. Matthew 13:38-43
  7. Matthew 13:49-50

Just to be clear…

18 January 2018

Some of you may be thinking that, with all my recent posts, I must have fallen into some kind of writing frenzy.

That’s not the case! Much of what is appearing — and will continue to appear for a while — is material I wrote over several years and which appeared previously on my personal website. In a major reshuffle, I have pruned down the website to more basic stuff and am gradually moving a lots of book reviews and articles into this blog.

Thanks for your understanding and support!


Review: The delusion of ‘correct’ beliefs

18 January 2018

Peter Enns is a scholar and we’re used to a fairly technical type of book from him. This one is different: while it comes, in the best sense, from his head, it comes also from his heart, more than any of his other writings so far. It is:

The Sin Of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our ‘correct’ beliefs by Peter Enns (HarperOne, 2016).   

tsoclargeHe observes that the maintenance of ‘correct beliefs’ has been the major factor dividing Christians, especially Protestants, since the Reformation. We major on it, in fact, much more than God himself does. What God is really after is our trust: our determination to remain committed to him and assured of his love no matter how puzzling our circumstances. That is especially true when we experience ‘the dark night of the soul’—a deep experience of God’s felt absence.

Enns writes partly from his own struggles in ‘dark night’ periods and tough personal circumstances—he was dismissed from his post as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary for not toeing the party line. But, being the scholar he is, he puts those struggles into context with a helpful historical survey of how we have reached our current obsession with ‘correct doctrine’, along with some helpful biblical insights.

For all who, like myself, are conscious of being on a spiritual journey taking us away from much of mainline evangelicalism this book is both reassuring and helpful. It will make you more tolerant of other Christians, more sympathetic towards non-Christians and, best of all, more trusting of God himself.

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

When once settled questions suddenly become unsettled, our life narratives are upset—and no one likes that. Reflecting on that tension and working through it is what this book is about. (259)

No one just “follows” the Bible. We interpret it as people with a past and present, and in community with others, within certain traditions, none of which is absolute. Many factors influence how we “follow” the Bible. None of us rises above our place in the human drama and grasps God with pure clarity, without our own baggage coming along for the ride. We all bring our broken and limited selves into how we think of God. (356)

The problem is trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God. The preoccupation with holding on to correct thinking with a tightly closed fist is not a sign of strong faith. It hinders the life of faith, because we are simply acting on a deep unnamed human fear of losing the sense of familiarity and predictability that our thoughts about God give us. (416)

Looking back, I am simply astounded that no one was aware enough to tell any of us that sooner or later “know what you believe” wouldn’t cut it. Sooner or later, that tank runs empty. (539)

If having faith means holding on to certainty, when certainty is under “attack,” your only option as a good Christian is to go to war—even if that means killing your own. (689)

The Bible does not have a good track record of promoting unity among those who read it.

When people read the Bible for themselves, they often disagree about what it means. The Bible does not have a good track record of promoting unity among those who read it. (715)

The Bible models trust in God that does not rest on whether we are able to be clear and certain about what to believe. (769)

Feeling like God is far away, disinterested, or dead to you is part of our Bible and can’t be brushed aside. And that feeling—no matter how intense it may be, and even offensive as it may seem—is never judged, shamed, or criticized by God. (834)

I don’t think “knowing” or seeking to think “correctly” about God is wrong. Not at all. The problem is preoccupation with correct thinking—mistaking our thoughts about God with the real thing, and then to base our faith on holding on to that certainty. The Bible is not remotely interested in that preoccupation. (1227)

I’m not against creeds or talking about what I believe. But as it’s used in the Bible, believing doesn’t focus on what someone believes in, but in whom one places his or her trust—namely God. Believing is a “who” word. (1237)

Being like God. That’s the goal. And we are most like God not when we are certain we are right about God, or when we tell others how right we are, but when we are acting toward one another like the faithful Father and Son. (1349)

How can Christians condemn brutal tribal warfare today when the Christian God commanded brutal tribal warfare yesterday? What kind of God are we dealing with here? (1615)

A faith that eats its own not only drives people out but also sends up a red flare to the rest of humanity that Christianity is just another exclusive members-only club, and that Jesus is a lingering relic of antiquity, rather than a powerful, present-defining spiritual reality; a means of gaining power rather than relinquishing it. (1852)

Maybe my purpose on earth isn’t to be the thought police first and love others after all their ideas line up as they should. Maybe my first order of business is to risk my own sense of certainty about God and love others where and how they are no matter how they do on my theology exam. (1933)

Doubt isn’t a sign of spiritual weakness but the first steps toward a deeper faith. (2063)

St. John of the Cross’s insight [into ‘the dark night of the soul’], which has meant a lot to me, is that the dark night is a special sign of God’s presence. Our false god is being stripped away, and we are left empty—with none of the familiar ideas of God that we create to prop us up. The dark night takes away the background noise we have created in our lives in order to prepare us to hear God’s voice later on—in God’s time. (2176)

Working on the lifelong habit of cultivating trust has meant learning to express my faith with words that rarely came to mind before—and that I might have mocked if they had—like journey, pilgrimage, and mystery. (2454)

I was learning, and still am, to honor my head without living in it. (2504)

Trust is not marked by unflappable dogmatic certainty, but by embracing as a normal part of faith the steady line of mysteries and uncertainties that parade before our lives and seeing them as opportunities to trust more deeply. (2615)

The flood, massacre of Canaanites, and other such acts of violence don’t tell us what God is like but how the Israelites, an ancient tribal people, understood and worshiped God. Readers today are not meant to think of God the same way, because the Bible is not a handy information packet on God from A-Z but a record of Israel’s understanding of God, often penetrating and consoling, but also incomplete and disturbing. (2853)


Fatties and Flagellants: What place for self-discipline?

17 January 2018

For the umpteenth time, recently, I climbed the Pilgrims’ Steps at St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall.

They are steep and very roughly cobbled—tough going even in my comfy trainers. I imagined the pilgrims of bygone days who climbed the same steps as a penance. They made the ascent barefoot, or even on their knees, believing that such pain and discomfort, imposed voluntarily on the body, would boost their spiritual credit-balance and free their spirit to soar to greater spiritual heights.

The Pilgrim's Steps, St Michael's MountBut these pilgrims were at the softer end of the ascetic scale. Others took the principle much further. They refused a mattress, choosing to sleep instead on a bare stone floor. They fasted to the point of sickness and emaciation. They wore hair shirts whose abrasive fibres irritated their skin, and if the shirt could be infested with fleas, so much the better: the fleas would bite, causing festering sores to remind the wearer of the mortality of the flesh.

Others went further still. They had their hands and feet nailed to boards in imitation of Christ’s crucifixion. They made hook-ended whips and beat their own backs till the bones were exposed and the blood ran to their ankles. They viewed with suspicion the body’s normal appetites for food, drink, sleep and sex, on the basis that to pander to them was to divert one’s focus from eternal and spiritual realities.

Things are different now. As the medieval has given way to the modern the pendulum in some Christian circles has swung to the opposite extreme. We have a ‘health and wealth’ gospel that encourages self-indulgence. On this view, the greatest good is your comfort and prosperity. The world’s mantra, ‘If it feels good, do it’, has infiltrated Christian thinking to the point where many believers can celebrate ‘God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’[1], but know nothing about self-discipline, or how to cope with suffering and pain.

Time was when most Christians were teetotal; some now think it’s acceptable to get more than tipsy in sharing a few bottles of wine with friends. A bit of pornography or sexual indulgence, others will say, is ‘only human’.

Some who once ate to live now live to eat, always upgrading to a ‘large’ of everything at McDonald’s, stuffing themselves with chocolate and fries, downing high-calorie cola at every opportunity and then, instead of a brisk walk to work it all off, they drive everywhere in upholstered comfort, their backsides getting broader by the month. They would be hard pressed just to walk up the Pilgrims’ Steps, never mind do it on their knees.

Both the flagellants and the fatties fall short of authentic Christian living. Medieval asceticism was undoubtedly over the top. Much of it reflected notions more at home in Greek philosophy than in Scripture, like the notion that anything material was base and unclean, and had to be pushed to one side so that the spiritual could take precedence. On that view, the body is the prison of the soul. Ascetic practices like the ones we have described were the only way the prison’s walls could be breached and its bars burst open to free the soul into the realms of pure spirit, where God himself dwells.

We can’t go along with that. The Bible doesn’t make such a stark body/soul distinction. In line with its Hebrew anthropology it addresses us as whole people with both a material and non-material dimension, but it never drives a wedge between the two the way much medieval Christianity did. Jesus met people’s physical needs as much as their spiritual ones. What’s more, when he rose from the dead he did so not as pure spirit but with a body. And that, says Paul, indicates that when our own resurrection day arrives we, too, will have a body like his.[2] Yes, our eternal destiny is to be an embodied one.

So hair shirts and knee-walking are out. But self-indulgence is as bad as asceticism, and today’s fatties have missed the mark as much as yesterday’s flagellants. If our bodies are temples where the majestic Holy Spirit dwells [3], how dare we abuse them the way some Christians do? Enjoyment of God’s world and of his good gifts is one thing; over-indulgence is another, and God himself calls us to draw the line. There is a place for good old-fashioned self-control, exercised in Christ’s honour.

Self-control, in fact, is central to the gospel. At least Paul thought so. When he got the opportunity to speak to Felix and his wife Drusilla about ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ he enlarged upon three basic themes: ‘righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come’.[4] How many Christians today would include that middle element?

By including it Paul was only preaching what he himself practised. He likened Christian living to training for the public games of Roman times, where the athlete ‘goes into strict training’— disciplined living, early morning runs, press-ups, a controlled diet—to help him achieve his goal. Paul kept a tight rein on his own bodily demands: ‘I discipline my body,’ he said, ‘and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.’[5] He urged young Timothy to live the same way. ‘Train yourself to be godly’, he said,[6] using the verb gymnazo—from which we get our word ‘gymnastics’ and ‘gymnasium’—with all its implications of discipline and self-control.

This is practical stuff. And spiritual, too, because true spirituality refuses to stay behind the dyke of numinosity and insists on flowing into every corner of our material lives. Self-control will probably mean saying no to the third glass of wine. Ordering regular fries instead of large. Refusing to pollute the Spirit’s temple with tobacco smoke. Saying a polite ‘no thank you’ to the offer of a second helping of pavlova. Steering clear of the newsagent’s stand where the porno mags are displayed. Taking the stairs instead of the lift. Walking rather than driving to the park. Choosing to skip a meal from time to time. All this just to keep your body in its place, because if you don’t it will exceed its privileges and take control. The body is a useful slave but, given the chance, it can become a terrible master.

Some will, I know, cry ‘Legalism!’ here. But that is not Scripture’s message. Legalism means making rules where God’s Word itself does not. The Bible does not forbid wine, for example, so neither must I. If, however, I voluntarily choose to be teetotal, that is right and good—as long as I don’t foist my own standard on others or make them feel that by having a glass of beer they are second-class Christians. As for food, there is a place for feasting, as Scripture plainly testifies. But feasts are the exception, not the norm, and a degree of everyday self-control is vital in our over-stuffed Western world if we are to avoid sinful self-indulgence.

Christian leaders need to be especially careful here. Paul urged Timothy, ‘Watch your life and doctrine closely.’[7] Note the order. The pastor who stands before the congregation may be sound in his doctrine but if his belly is three times the size of his backside all I can hear him proclaiming is, ‘I’m weak and self-indulgent, a complete slave to food and drink. Yes, I know I say that Jesus is Lord, but my true lord is my appetite.’[8] It’s a shockingly bad advert for God and the gospel.

We’re on a sliding scale here, with the flagellant at one end and the obese at the other. Ecclesiastes has a word in season for us: ‘Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.’[9] None of us wants to revert to the madness of medieval asceticism. In today’s developed world it’s the other extreme that draws like a magnet. So do a Bible study on self-control.[10] Grasp its basic principles. Then ask the Holy Spirit to tell you clearly what temple maintenance will mean for you, here and now.

Take yourself in hand—for your health’s sake, for the sake of your Christian witness, and for the glory of God.

Footnotes

  1. 1 Timothy 6:17
  2. Philippians 3:21
  3. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
  4. Acts 24:24-25
  5. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV. See also Proverbs 25:28
  6. 1 Timothy 4:7
  7. 1 Timothy 4:16
  8. In a few cases, of course, obesity can be caused by glandular problems, or by drugs used to treat certain conditions, and people in such situations need our understanding and sympathy. But in the vast majority of cases obesity is the result of lifestyle choices within the control of the individual, and the individual stands responsible.
  9. Ecclesiates 7:18
  10. You could start with the main NT Greek word for ‘self-control’, which is enkrateia (Strong’s G1466). You will find it, in one form or another, in Acts 24:25; Galatians 5:23; 2 Peter 1:6. Its opposite, meaning ‘lack of self-control’ is akrasia (Strong’s G192) and akrates (Strong’s G193) and these words appear in Matthew 23:25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Timothy 3:3.

Review: Tom Wright on the Crucifixion

17 January 2018

In his earlier work, Surprised By Hope, Tom Wright shook up traditional thinking about life after death and eschatology. In his latest popular work he does something similar with the cross and the atonement. The book is:

The Day The Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion by Tom Wright (SPCK, 2016).

tdtrblargeWhat, he asks, is the cross really all about? Our answer to that question will always shape the message we proclaim.

The death of Jesus, in the understanding of the first Christians, triggered a revolution. This was something far bigger than a personal ‘you can be saved from your sins and be sure of going to heaven’. It was a revolution with huge implications for the world at large. The fact that, for many today, it is something less is due to developments over two thousand years of church history, which Wright helpfully summarises.

He then goes back in history to place the cross in its original, first century, setting. He explores the Gospels at length, plus Paul’s letters, with a detailed treatment of Romans in particular—and, even more particularly 3:21-26. Here he exposes the traditional ‘works contract’ for the error it is.

Messiah dealt with the ‘powers’, notably Sin itself, by his cross. In so doing he brought Israel’s long, unfinished story to its astonishing conclusion. Now we, as human beings, are free to embrace the vocation for which we were made: to be a ‘royal priesthood’ under God.

En route, the author has some fascinating observations on related topics. The Reformers’ doctrine of penal substitution, for example, was chiefly a reaction against the doctrine of purgatory. And he holds that there is no room, biblically, for the doctrine of the ‘appeasement’ of an angry God by Jesus stepping in between him and us, his intended victims.

While this is a ‘popular’ book, as against Wright’s academic writings, it is no light read. I outstandingbookwent through it three times before I felt I had got a real handle on all its essentials. But it rings true to Scripture in every respect, reflecting Wright’s compendious grasp of the Bible as a whole and standing in stark contrast to the glib reductions of the ‘gospel’ that we hear all too often.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Do you have the guts to tackle it? If you do, you will be forever grateful. Hopefully the following quotations will whet your appetite.

[Here are some quotations. Note: the numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers]

I had been taught, that the death of Jesus was all about God saving me from my “sin,” so that I could “go to heaven.” That, of course, can be quite a revolutionary idea for someone who’s never thought of it before. But it’s not quite the revolution the early Christians were talking about. In fact, that way of putting it, taken on its own, significantly distorts what Jesus’s first followers were saying. They were talking about something bigger, something more dangerous, something altogether more explosive. (76)

What deep layers of meaning are hidden in the deceptively simple phrase “for our sins”? (281)

On the level of preaching and teaching, how can we best articulate the central gospel message, so that its impact comes from its original meaning rather than from dodgy illustrations that can easily distort the truth? (362)

Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century, was the first one to work out in detail what has come to be known as the “satisfaction” theory of the atonement: God’s honour has been impugned by human sin and must be satisfied. (397)

The sixteenth-century Reformers never sorted out what to say about the ultimate future (for which the technical term is “eschatology”); and, as we saw, whatever we mean by “atonement” is directly related to whatever we think about God’s ultimate future, particularly about what happens after death. How we are saved is closely linked to the question of what we are saved for. (422)

In general terms the Reformers and their successors were…trying to give biblical answers to medieval questions. They were wrestling with the question of how the angry God of the late medieval period might be pacified, both here (through the Mass?) and hereafter (in purgatory?). To both questions, they replied: no, God’s wrath was already pacified through the death of Jesus. (482)

The New Testament insists, in book after book, that when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. And the early Christians insisted that when people are caught up in the meaning of the cross, they become part of this difference. (602)

The New Testament, with the story of Jesus’s crucifixion at its centre, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. (602)

The idea of an angry, bullying deity who has to be appeased, to be bought off, to have his wrathful way with someone even if it isn’t the right person fits uncomfortably well with the way many human authority figures actually behave. (663)

To understand any event in history, you must put it firmly into that history and not rest content with what later generations have said about it. That is certainly true of the crucifixion of Jesus, and unless we allow first-century contexts and insights to surround the event, we can be sure we shall fail to grasp its original meaning. (759)

Jesus himself chose Passover as the moment to do what he had to do, and the first Christians looked back to Passover as one of the main interpretative lenses for understanding his death. (950)

All the great prophets of the exile had insisted that Israel’s disaster (including the destruction of the Temple and the consequent sense of being excluded from the divine Presence) was the result of Israel’s own idolatry and sin. If and when, therefore, a fresh act of deliverance were to undo this long exile, it would be a divine act of “forgiveness of sins.” (950)

There has been little agreement on the meaning of sacrifice in Jesus’s world. Since both he and many of his earliest followers used the language of sacrifice in relation to his death (remarkable enough in itself, in that the Jews did not believe in human sacrifice), it will be important to clarify some at least of the meaning that seems to have been attached to the ritual slaughter of animals in the Temple. This is harder than some might imagine. (996)

In the Bible, God’s plan to deal with sin, and so to break the power of idols and bring new creation to his world, is focused on the people of Israel. In the New Testament, this focus is narrowed to Israel’s representative, the Messiah. He stands in for Israel and so fulfils the divine plan to restore creation itself. (1008)

The human problem is not so much “sin” seen as the breaking of moral codes—though that, to be sure, is part of it…—but rather idolatry and the distortion of genuine humanness it produces. (1045)

…the first three chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There, one of the key technical terms is “righteousness,” in Greek dikaiosynē. For many centuries in many traditions, “righteousness” has been understood as the moral status we would have if only we had kept the “works contract” perfectly, and then (by various explanations) as the status we can have by faith because, despite our moral failure, Jesus has taken the punishment and so provided the “righteousness” as a gift (“the righteousness of Christ”). The problem—to put it bluntly—is that this is not what Romans is all about. (1069)

What the Bible offers is not a “works contract,” but a covenant of vocation. The vocation in question is that of being a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for his world. The main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker. Those who do so are the “royal priesthood,” the “kingdom of priests,” the people who are called to stand at the dangerous but exhilarating point where heaven and earth meet. (1081)

Most people suppose that when Paul explains what is wrong with the human race, he focuses on “sin.” This is wrong. What he says about “sin” in Romans 1–2 is secondary to what he says about idolatry. The primary human failure is a failure of worship. (1208)

The biblical story addresses…the “sin” problem but goes much farther. The problem is that humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected; that this rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols; that this results in giving to the idols—“forces” within the creation—a power over humans and the world that was rightfully that of genuine humans; and that this leads to a slavery, which is ultimately the rule of death itself, the corruption and destruction of the good world made by the Creator. (1232)

Only when we give full early Christian weight to the phrase “in accordance with the Bible” [1 Cor 15:3] will we discover the full early Christian meaning of the phrase “for our sins.” And this means renouncing the Platonized views of salvation, the moralizing reduction of the human plight, and ultimately the paganized views of how salvation is accomplished. (1329)

When we read Genesis and Exodus together, the construction of the tabernacle toward the end of Exodus and the role of Aaron the high priest within it can be seen as a renewal or restoration of the original creation. In the “little world” of the sacred tent, close up and divinely personal, the story echoes the original creation. Heaven and earth belong together. God himself is mysteriously present. Humans, bearing the divine image, play their priestly role at the centre. (1354)

Just as the Creator chose the covenant people to be the means of rescuing the human race, so now, with the chosen people themselves in need of rescue, God might do the same thing again. He might act in a new way to call from within exilic Israel a remnant, perhaps even a remnant of one, through whom he would deliver Israel. (1365)

When humans sin, they hand to nondivine forces a power and authority that those forces were never supposed to have. And that is why, if God’s plan is to rescue and restore his whole creation, with humans as the active agents in the middle of it, “sins” have to be dealt with. That is the only way by which the nondivine forces that usurp the human role in the world will lose their power. They will be starved of the oxygen that keeps them alive, that turns them from ordinary parts of God’s creation into distorted and dangerous monsters. (1426)

Exile is therefore to be understood as a kind of corporate national death. Leaving the land is leaving the garden; leaving the ruined Temple means being debarred from the Tree of Life. (1475)

When the early Christian formula says that Jesus’s death happened “in accordance with the Bible,” it really does mean, as Jesus himself indicated in Luke 24, that the single great narrative had now come forward to its long-awaited goal. (1500)

It is startling to reflect on just how diminished the average modern Western Christian vision of “hope,” of “inheritance,” or indeed of “forgiveness” itself has become. We have exchanged the glory of God for a mess of spiritualized, individualistic, and moralistic pottage. (1641)

The book of Daniel bears witness to a recurring theme found in some parts of scripture and then in some postbiblical Jewish literature. When Israel’s God finally acted to accomplish the long-awaited end of exile—which, as we saw, meant the forgiveness of the sins that had caused the exile in the first place—this would come about through a time of intense suffering, either for the people as a whole or for a particular group within the people. (1713)

As far as I can tell, within Israel’s scriptures it is only in Isaiah 53 that the intense suffering is the means, and not simply the context, of the expected deliverance, of the forgiveness of sins… Isaiah 53, above all other passages, is used in the New Testament as the scriptural clue to the meaning of Jesus’s death. (1772)

…the New Testament’s message, that what we are promised in the gospel is the kingdom of God coming “on earth as in heaven”; or, to put it another way, for all things in heaven and on earth to be summed up in the Messiah; or, to put it yet another way, “new heavens and a new earth, in which justice will be at home” (2 Pet. 3:13). (2093)

In much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of “salvation” (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore). (2105)

…the “forgiveness of sins” in the ancient biblical sense of the long-awaited covenant renewal and “end of exile.” (2161)

This is what “for our sins in accordance with the Bible” actually meant: that the scriptural narrative of the restoration of Israel and then the welcome of the non-Jews into this restored people…had been launched through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that the single-phrase summary of all this, operating at both the large, national scale and the small, personal level, was the “forgiveness of sins.” (2188)

Acts describes what happens to human beings who are learning to live within God’s new world: they worship and they witness. The first corresponds to the “priesthood” theme, the second to the “royal” theme. (2288)

But if heaven and earth are already joined in the ascension, with part of “earth”—the human body of Jesus—now fully and thoroughly at home in “heaven,” then they are joined again in the opposite direction, as it were, in Acts 2, when the powerful wind of the divine Spirit comes upon the disciples. This is one of the New Testament equivalents of the filling of the tabernacle with the cloud and fire or of Solomon’s Temple with the glorious divine Presence. (2327)

“Witness” is not simply about people saying, “I’ve had this experience; perhaps you might like it too,” but about people announcing that a new state of affairs has come into being. (2351)

And with the resurrection we find the beginnings of the interpretation of the crucifixion. The cross meant what it meant in the light of what happened next. (2517)

At the heart of what we securely know about Jesus’s death is the time of year at which it took place. It happened at Passover time, and it seems clear that this was deliberate on Jesus’s part. He chose, for his final and fateful symbolic confrontation with Jerusalem and its authorities, the moment when all his fellow Jews were busy celebrating the Exodus from Egypt and praying that God would do again, only on a grander scale, what he had done all those years ago. (2566)

…when Jesus himself is making his final journey to Jerusalem and telling stories about the master who comes back—an obvious allusion to the much-anticipated return of Israel’s God after the long years of exile. (2578)

As long as Israel was still in bondage to hostile powers, what was needed was a new Exodus; but, because the cause of that bondage was Israel’s sins, what had to happen was for those sins to be dealt with. This combination of themes—the Passover victory, on the one hand, and the exile-ending “forgiveness of sins,” on the other—would then become characteristic of many strands in the New Testament. (2649)

Almost nobody in the gospels warns about “going to hell.” The dire warnings in the four gospels are mostly directed toward an imminent thisworldly disaster, namely, the fall of Jerusalem and other events connected with that. (2814)

John 19:30, the last shout of Jesus from the cross, is sometimes translated “It is finished” or “It’s all done!” This is then turned into a statement about a bill being paid or an account being settled to fit in with a particular atonement theology rather than being allowed to make John’s point, which is the completion of Jesus’s vocation in parallel with the completion of creation itself in Genesis 2:2 (see also John 17:4). (2826)

All four gospels tell the story of Jesus as one of Israel’s God returning at last. (2874)

The four gospels are telling not only the story of God’s kingdom being inaugurated, but also the story of how evil draws itself up to its height so that it can then be defeated by the Messiah. (2958)

Within this larger picture, the evangelists have also explained how this “forgiveness of sins,” this “return from exile,” comes about. It comes about because the one will stand in for the many. It comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole. (3032)

Jesus is accused of crimes that Luke’s readers know he has not committed, but that are characteristic of the many revolutionary groups around at the time (23:2). He is thus to die the death of the brigand, the revolutionary, in place of rebel Israel as a whole. This is captured in the way Luke somewhat belabours his explanation of the “exchange” of Barabbas for Jesus. (3069)

Jesus’s death is seen, right across the New Testament, not as rescuing people from the world so that they can avoid “hell” and go to “heaven,” but as a powerful revolution—that is, a revolution full of a new sort of power—within the world itself. (3173)

The letter [to the Galatians] is about unity: the fact that in the Messiah, particularly through his death, the one God has done what he promised Abraham all along. He has given him a single family in which believing Jews and believing Gentiles form one body. (3376)

Precisely because the Messiah’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God himself at work in generous self-giving love to overthrow all power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power, that same divine nature would now be at work through the ministry of the gospel not only through what was said, but through the character and the circumstances of the people who were saying it. That is Paul’s central argument in 2 Corinthians. (3627)

Many traditions, misled by the normal translation of 1 Cor 5:21b as “that in him we might become ‘the righteousness of God,’” have imagined that in this verse we have a statement of what is called “double imputation”: our sins are “imputed” to Jesus and his righteousness is “imputed” to us. But that is specifically not what Paul says. (3653)

The poem [Phil 2:6-11] is a masterpiece of compressed biblical theology. One can only stand in awe at the combination of insight and expression that could encapsulate so much in a mere seventy-six Greek words. What this tells me is that already in the very early church it was common coin, first, that Jesus’s death established God’s kingdom; second, that this came about because of his servant-shaped identification with sinful humanity, sharing their death and so bearing their sin; and third, that this action was not something Jesus did despite the fact that he was “in God’s form” and “equal with God,” but rather something that he did because he was those things. In whatever way the New Testament tells the story of the cross, it is always the story of self-giving divine love. (3719)

Humans are designed to worship God and exercise responsibility in his world. But when humans worship idols instead, so that their image-bearing humanness corrupts itself into sin, missing the mark of the human vocation, they hand over their power to those same idols. The idols then use this power to tyrannize and ultimately to destroy their devotees and the wider world. But when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power. (3756)

The first four chapters of Romans have for many years been read as though they were a statement of our old friend the “works contract.” Humans were supposed to behave themselves; they didn’t. God had to punish them, but Jesus stood in the way, so God forgave them after all (provided they believed in Jesus). Rather than going to hell, they can now go to heaven instead… I am convinced that this is mistaken. (3611)

“Sin” is not just “doing things God has forbidden.” It is, as we saw, the failure to be fully functioning, God-reflecting human beings. That is what Paul sums up in [Romans] 3:23: all sinned and fell short of God’s glory. He is referring to the glory that, as true humans, they should have possessed. This is the “glory” spoken of in Psalm 8: the status and responsibility of looking after God’s world on his behalf. This status and this activity are sustained by true worship of the true God. This is the royal vocation, undergirded by the priestly vocation. (3860)

The “I” and “me” of Romans 7 is a literary device through which Paul is telling the life story of Israel under the Torah. (4084)

[Re Romans 8:1-4]  “There is no condemnation for those in the Messiah … because God … condemned Sin right there in the flesh.” The punishment has been meted out. But the punishment is on Sin itself, the combined, accumulated, and personified force that has wreaked such havoc in the world and in human lives. Here is a point that must be noted most carefully. Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus. (4137)

The death of Jesus, seen in this light, is certainly penal. It has to do with the punishment on Sin—not, to say it again, on Jesus—but it is punishment nonetheless. Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin (in the flesh of the Messiah), and therefore sinners who are “in the Messiah” are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not. (4150)

For the death of Jesus to be an expression—the ultimate expression—of the divine love, that covenant love that as we saw lay at the heart of so many ancient Israelite expressions of hope for covenant rescue and renewal, we would need to say, and Paul does say, that in the sending of the son the creator and covenant God is sending his own very self. (4174)

What then is this “righteousness of God”? In Israel’s scriptures, to which Paul explicitly appeals in Romans 3:21b (“the law and the prophets bore witness to it”), God’s “righteousness” is not simply God’s status of being morally upright. It is, more specifically, God’s faithfulness to the covenant—the covenant not only with Abraham and Israel, but through Israel to the wider world. (4380)

Paul is not saying, “God will justify sinners by faith so that they can go to heaven, and Abraham is an advance example of this.” He is saying, “God covenanted with Abraham to give him a worldwide family of forgiven sinners turned faithful worshippers, and the death of Jesus is the means by which this happens.” (4559)

God is faithful to the covenant; and, since the covenant focused on the purpose and promise to rescue the world through Israel, this is what has happened in and through the Messiah, who has offered to God the Israel-shaped obedience, the “faithfulness,” that was previously lacking. (4661)

The idea of “punishment” [in Isaiah 53] is in reality a sharp metaphor for the consequence that is writ large across the history of Israel—just as, when Paul is talking about sin and its results in Romans 1, he repeats three times that “God gave them up.” The corrupting and corrosive lifestyles he describes are not arbitrary, but rather the result, the consequence, of the original idolatry. This doesn’t mean that God is not involved in those consequences. (4925)

Israel’s past sins, the faithlessness that had apparently thrown the covenant into jeopardy, had been passed over, while the purpose of the covenant was gloriously fulfilled in the creation of a worldwide justified people. The “covenant of vocation”—Israel’s vocation to be the light of the world—was fulfilled. As a result, God and Israel “met” in Jesus. In Jesus, as Israel’s representative, God and Israel, God and the human race, God and the world met and were reconciled. “God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah” (2 Cor. 5:19). (5047)

Paul is not simply offering a roundabout way of saying, “We sinned; God punished Jesus; we are forgiven.” He is saying, “We all committed idolatry, and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has put forth the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery.” (5059)

When we see the victory of Jesus in relation to the biblical Passover tradition, reshaped through the Jewish longing for the “forgiveness of sins” as a liberating event within history, we see the early Christian movement not as a “religion” in the modern sense at all, but as a complete new way of being human in the world and for the world. (5230)

To reflect the divine image means standing between heaven and earth, even in the present time, adoring the Creator and bringing his purposes into reality on earth, ahead of the time when God completes the task and makes all things new. The “royal priesthood” is the company of rescued humans who, being part of “earth,” worship the God of heaven and are thereby equipped, with the breath of heaven in their renewed lungs, to work for his kingdom on earth. (5243)

What we have to do is to respond to the love poured out on the cross with love of our own: love for the one who died, yes, but also love for those around us, especially those in particular need. And part of the challenge of putting that into practice is that the powers, in whatever form, will be angry. They want to keep the world in their own grip. They will fight back. (5278)

The victory was indeed won, the revolution was indeed launched, through the suffering of Jesus; it is now implemented, put into effective operation, by the suffering of his people. (5290)

The revolution he accomplished was the victory of a strange new power, the power of covenant love, a covenant love winning its victory not over suffering, but through suffering. This meant, inevitably, that the victory would have to be implemented in the same way, proceeding by the slow road of love rather than the quick road of sudden conquest. (5402)

The bread-breaking meal, the Jesus feast, announces to the forces of evil like a public decree read out by a herald in the marketplace that Jesus is Lord, that he has faced the powers of sin and death and beaten them, and that he has been raised again to launch the new world in which death itself will have no authority. (5497)

The reign of the crucified Jesus only had to be announced for it to become effective. The powers that had held people captive were powerless to stop them believing, to prevent them from becoming part of God’s new creation. (5638)

It isn’t the case that power as we know it in the “real” world is the “norm” and the Christian subversion of it is a kind of bizarre twist that might just work even though we don’t see how. The gospel of Jesus summons us to believe that the power of self-giving love unveiled on the cross is the real thing, the power that made the world in the first place and is now in the business of remaking it; and that the other forms of “power,” the corrupt and self-serving ways in which the world is so often run, from global empires and multimillion businesses down to classrooms, families, and gangs, are the distortion. (5746)

As Christians, our role in society is not to wring our hands at the corruption of power or simply to pick a candidate that supports one or another supposedly Christian policy. The Christian role, as part of naming the name of the crucified and risen Jesus on territory presently occupied by idols, is to speak the truth to power and especially to speak up for those with no power at all. (5770)

Those who are called to this particular royal and priestly ministry, to worship the Jesus who reasserted the power of love and to bring that powerful love to bear upon the enslaved world, will suffer in some way or other as they do so. (5811)

Mission, as seen from the New Testament perspective, is neither about “saving souls for heaven” nor about “building the kingdom on earth.” It is the Spirit-driven, cross-shaped work of Jesus’s followers as they worship the true God and, confronting idols with the news of Jesus’s victory, work for the signs of his kingdom in human lives and institutions. (5882)

We lift up our eyes and realize that when the New Testament tells us the meaning of the cross, it gives us not a system, but a story; not a theory, but a meal and an act of humble service; not a celestial mechanism for punishing sin and taking people to heaven, but an earthly story of a human Messiah who embodies and incarnates Israel’s God and who unveils his glory in bringing his kingdom to earth as in heaven. (6003)

Forget the “works contract,” with its angry, legalistic divinity. Forget the false either/or that plays different “theories of atonement” against one another. Embrace the “covenant of vocation” or, rather, be embraced by it as the Creator calls you to a genuine humanness at last, calls and equips you to bear and reflect his image. Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now. (6016)


Review: Original Sin – a legitimate doctrine?

16 January 2018

This challenging book puts ‘original sin’ under the spotlight and finds the doctrine wanting. The book is:

Original Blessing: Putting Sin in its Rightful Place by Danielle Shroyer (Fortress Press, 2016).

oblargeOriginal sin’ is the idea that, as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, human nature was corrupted, leaving all human beings fundamentally and inherently sinful. Far from being a plain biblical teaching, it was not until the 4th century AD that this doctrine emerged, thanks chiefly to Augustine and his new twist on some of Paul’s teaching. Before that, ‘sin’ was seen as specific wrong actions, words or thoughts, or as an ‘illness’ that plagued an otherwise healthy individual. Nobody considered that we had a ‘sinful nature’.

But by the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of original sin was so ingrained in Christian thinking that no-one seriously questioned it, believing that there were other, more serious, issues needing attention. It has hung around ever since, giving a negative flavour to many of our attitudes and approaches, at least in the Western church. But the Eastern church never held that doctrine, and still rejects it as unbiblical.

Shroyer is not saying that sin isn’t universal; it clearly is. She is saying that humans were—and still are—formed as recipients of God’s love and blessing. Through our own waywardness and sin we repeat Adam and Eve’s running away from God. But he doesn’t run away from us; instead, he comes after us, bringing the means of covering our spiritual nakedness.

God, says the author, made us to be connected: to him primarily, then to each other and to the created order. He is committed to the relationship with us that he himself initiated. And insofar as any human being responds to that truth, they grow and prosper. Our gospel message, therefore, must focus on deepening their awareness and showing them how to know a full relationship with God through Jesus.

The author is a competent theologian. She looks in detail at Genesis 3 and at the Bible’s language of sin, drawing conclusions that are hard to deny. She also examines carefully the texts where original sin is usually grounded: Romans 5:12-17; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; and 2 Corinthians 11:3. There’s a lot to think about here. But you could find that it makes you look at other people with more of God’s own love and compassion!

Here are some quotations (numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers).

There’s a well-worn description of the great chasm of sin, where we’re on one side and God is on the other, and Jesus’ cross provides a bridge over which we can walk to God again. That illustration isn’t a description of the gospel. It’s a description of the story of original sin. And original sin is not the gospel.  (53)

Original blessing claims we are steadfastly held in relationship with God. Original blessing reminds us that God calls us good and beloved before we are anything else. Sin is not at the heart of our nature; blessing is.  (62)

More than any other idea, the doctrine of original sin has slowly eroded our understanding of our relationship with God. Rather than seeing our lives as naturally and deeply connected with God, original sin has convinced us that human nature stands not only at a distance from God but also in some inborn, natural way as contrary to God.  (155)

Original blessing means we don’t have to believe we must work against our human nature to live with God. Our human nature is not an obstacle to our relationship with God. Our humanity is the very reason we’re able to have a relationship with God in the first place.  (214)

We have to get rid of the idea that to be God-centered is to denigrate the self. When we are truly God-centered, our humanity becomes beautiful, not insignificant.  (272)

Though it may seem that original sin is a given, Christian history tells us a different story. None of the Eastern branches of our family tree (Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Christian) have ever accepted it, and of course our Jewish forebears, without whom we would not have our tradition, have roundly and consistently rejected it. So Jesus wasn’t raised with our notion of original sin, and his disciples wouldn’t have been either, or Paul.  (358)

Original sin is the red sock in our theological laundry. It has the potential to discolor everything, and it often does.  (364)

The man and the woman in the garden of Eden didn’t have a sin nature, and they sinned. Why can’t we just say the same is true for us?  (395)

People aren’t perfect, but the opposite is also true. People aren’t entirely evil.  (403)

I’m also wary of the idea of a sin nature because it devalues humanity. I don’t mean that we ought to put humanity on a pedestal, but there’s a direct correlation between how we value something and how we treat it.  (508)

Many proponents of original sin say it’s the only way for us to understand how much we rely on grace. I don’t think that’s true, and I also think that’s dangerous. God’s grace can’t and shouldn’t be twisted and used as a way for us to feel like we’re unworthy. God doesn’t need to humiliate us before giving us grace just to ensure the grace is effective and appreciated.  (574)

We are not born fallen—and yet, for many of us, that’s the only version we’ve been told about what happened with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They ate an apple, and when they did, their relationship with God—and ours with it—was permanently disfigured and disordered. Now instead of a golden thread connecting us to God, there is a chasm of sin separating us from God.   But maybe that isn’t the only way to read the story.  (712)

In no place in Genesis 1–3 does scripture describe the man and the woman as immortal. They are created by God and given life by God, but nothing in the creation stories tell us that death is not present…   Genesis 2:17 says, “Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” It does not say death will enter into the world. The fact that the man and the woman understood what God meant proves that death was a reality they already knew, even if they had not yet experienced it.  (779)

When we read Genesis 3, we do not have to say, “Oh yes, that’s how I got to be like this. It’s their fault.” We can say, quite simply, “Oh yes, I am sometimes like that.”  (881)

There are a good number of legitimate ways to interpret Genesis 3. I happen to think the most popular Protestant version of it is one of the least legitimate ones, if only because of the unconvincing conclusions it makes about original sin.  (1111)

The man and the woman were raised in the garden, but eventually they would have to leave home. And, like every other child who embarks toward adulthood, leaving home inevitably includes some form of individuation and rebellion. For us to become ourselves, we have to push against the very people who made us. We have to stand against them, and even reject them, in order to find our way back into relationship with them again as adults.  (1155)

We are not evil villains but wayward children. We do not have a sin nature but a human nature.  (1271)

We learn in the garden that we are capable of good and evil, and that we often do not know the difference. But more importantly, we learn in the garden that we are loved, that we are clothed and sent away in peace, and that God is waiting for us even east of Eden.  (1275)

The word of God is very close to us, while sin must always stalk us at a distance. Sin is waiting for us, but it is our choice whether we open the door. Blessing is not waiting for us, because blessing is already with us and within us, regardless of whichever side of the door we’re standing. Blessing is the home, and sin is the stranger.  (1406)

The most predominant word for sin in both the Hebrew and the Greek assumes in its very definition our ability to hit the mark.  (1574)

When scripture calls us to goodness, to repentance, to grace, it’s not like telling a fish to ride a bicycle. It’s not something so contradictory to who we are and what we can do that it’s an impossible notion. Salvation is available to us because God has offered it, but also because God has designed us to be capable of responding to it.  (1579)

I fear we’ve confused the personal nature of sin with an individualistic view of sin. Much of this stems from the doctrine of original sin, which slowly began to describe sin more and more as an individual problem. So it’s important to remember that the concept of the modern human and even the modern individual conscience is a new idea, and we have to be careful not to assume that the writers of scripture understood sin in the same kind of overtly personal (and existential) way.  (1646)

People are most motivated by a desire to be loved and cherished. What we want most of all is not heroin but a home.  (1713)

The doctrine of original sperm paved the way for the theory that the virgin birth was necessary to keep sin from being passed on to Jesus. And it’s one of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church ended up promoting the doctrine of perpetual virginity for Mary, even though scripture itself mentions that Mary and Joseph had children after Jesus was born.  (1771)

If we are taught to see our bodies as the source of our sin nature, it’s not particularly easy to appreciate them, much less to know what to do with them. When we believe our bodies are created good, we can choose to live into them as a natural part of human life blessed by God.  (1793)

If we see growing up as a natural part of life, we can see teen questions and struggles as the necessary road toward maturity, not the road paved to hell.  (1820)

This may be one of the most tragic results of the doctrine of original sin. It deeply diminishes Jesus. When we emphasize sin as the big problem, and we make salvation the debt paid for our sin problem, then Jesus becomes not a savior but a sin portfolio manager.  (1887)

For the first nearly thousand years of Christian history, the crucifixion was not a central focus; Easter was. The cross was remembered one day a year, and the other three hundred and sixty four days were devoted to Easter. Symbols of Jesus as healer, life-giver, shepherd, light, and gardener populated art, houses of worship, liturgy, and prayers.  (1897)

While original sin would say someone is bad, original blessing need only say something is wrong.  (1918)

As the doctrine of original sin developed, the Western church began to move away from healing language and instead describe sin and salvation in legal terms. Sin ceased to be viewed as the natural state of our bodies gone awry, but instead an unavoidable part of our human heredity. But once sin is considered part of our inborn nature, there is no restorative medicine to heal us. Sin became separated from the very life that can heal it. What is now required is not whole-life salvation, but payment. With this view of sin, the Western church began to rely almost exclusively on legal metaphors in some of the New Testament letters to describe salvation. Eventually, legal debt and payment were the only dimension of salvation left in the West.  (1931)

If we see Jesus’ story only through the lens of a courtroom and a legal debt, God’s love, mercy, and grace become more of a “phew” than a “wow.” Justice and mercy are not forces of punishment. They are agents of healing.  (1958)

In a world where we think we get what we deserve, the most deserving of us all got sold out, abandoned, denied, mocked, beaten, bloodied, and crucified. The cross is the symbol of a cosmic “should not.” It is the ferocious antidote of “if, then” faith. Choose life, says Moses. He didn’t mention if you do it perfectly, it would get you killed.  (2021)

God’s love is the steadiest thing the cosmos has to offer. We can rest in God’s steadfast faithfulness even after we have crucified the Son of God. What an unfathomable mystery. Once we realize that’s true, we can begin to know the depths of the deepest truth of all: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing.  (2134)

Blessing isn’t one more thing for you to be good at. It’s the one place where you don’t have to do anything at all but just show up.  (2368)

God’s blessing is not based on feeling it. It’s there whether you can see it or not, whether you feel it or not, even whether you can accept it or not. It’s always there. And somehow, it will become known to you again.  (2373)