When God’s Mercy Sounds Like Bad News (My 1st CT Column)

mercy like bad news.jpgI already announced this online last week, but I’ve accepted the invitation to be a columnist for the Christianity Today print edition for the next year. The column is entitled “Confessing God”–a title I’ve taken from the late John Webster. My hope is that each piece will do just that: confess the God of Scripture as a member of the Church for the sake of the Church and the watching world.

In any case, my first column entitled, “When God’s Mercy Sounds Like Bad News” has just been unlocked at Christianity Today. Here’s an excerpt:

Moses was well-acquainted with the patience of God. He pled for Israel when they betrayed the Lord with the Golden Calf. For years he dealt with the Israelites in the desert, their complaining and recalcitrance. They “vexed the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:41), and still God bore it, restraining his wrath and refusing to cut them off (Isa. 48:9). God’s patience is a central, defining feature of his character.

But this wasn’t always a comfort to Moses. Rather than being left to deal with the grumbling and sin of his people, he asks God to kill him outright (Num. 11:15).

Moses isn’t alone in this frustration.Unnerved by the success of lawbreakers, thieves, and idolaters, the psalmist asks, “How long will the wicked be jubilant?” (Ps. 94:3). David cries a similar lament in the face of his enemies’ taunts (Ps. 13:1). Overwhelmed by opposition, he wonders whether God will defend him. In Scripture, God’s people are surprised and repelled by God’s patience as often as they are comforted by it.

You can read the rest here.

Soli Deo Gloria

N.T. Wright’s Assault on Moralistic Platonic Paganism? (A Review)

the-day-the-revolution-beganI suppose I’ll begin with a bit of a confession: I’ve been a devoted N.T. Wright fan since I was 20, or about 10 years now, during which I’ve read all his major monographs and most of his popular works (excluding the commentaries, of which I do own the majority). Surprising as it may be for some, before I read Calvin, Bavinck, or even Vanhoozer, I was reading Wright. While I have become critical of certain elements, or tendencies in Wright’s work, I cannot stress how massive his (massive) works have been in shaping my broader Biblical and New Testament theology. This is especially the case with his atonement theology, which I have discussed and defended here).

When I heard he was coming out with a big book on the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began, I was very excited (as were half the theological nerds in the Western Hemisphere). Having read it now, I will say it’s vintage Wright in just about every sense of the word. Whether it’s the story-telling, the punchy language and style that grips you and carries you along (I read the 400 pages in about 2 days), the stimulating biblical insight, the pastoral application, and the passionate polemics—good and bad—it’s all there in spades.

Against MPP

I mentioned the polemics because they’re central to his project. Wright wants to explain how Jesus’ death at 6 on a Friday managed to launch the revolution of love which transformed the cosmos. But he thinks in the Western church that message has been overshadowed by another, cut-rate gospel. Instead of worrying about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), though, Wright is interested in correcting Moralistic Platonic Paganism (MPP). He says the church has all too often moralized our problem (making sin about bad behavior instead of its root, idolatry), we have platonized our eschatology (making it about going to heaven instead of resurrection and New Creation), therefore paganized our soteriology (making it mainly about an angry Father randomly punishing an innocent Jesus, instead of the loving self-offering of God).

This alternative set-up he calls the “works-contract.” It’s a cut-down story that sounds a lot like some 4 Spiritual Laws, or “Romans Road”, or Chick-Tract presentations of the gospel. Humans are supposed to be good, they fail, God is angry with them, but Jesus comes and obeys for us, suffers the wrath of God in our place, and so we get to go heaven with a much calmer God now. Against this, he sets a much more comprehensive story beginning with Adam, continuing on through Abraham, Israel, the Exodus, the Exile, and down on into Jesus as the culmination of all of God’s ways with us. For those familiar with Wright’s earlier works, the story is fairly familiar.

Before jumping in, I’ll say that I think Michael Horton has given a very fair-handed summary and review of the work. He touches on a number of issues I pass over and probably better worth your time than the lengthy business which follows.

That noted, I’ll first note a number of the positives of Wright’s work and then jump into a couple of lengthier engagement/critique sections.

The Goods

First off, this is a good distillation of Wright’s broader project of telling the story of Jesus in the New Testament in its many-splendored dimensions. Wright is at pains to keep the story of the gospel properly complicated because historically-situated. Or rather, he wants to make sure that we appreciate the fullest sense in which the death of Jesus makes sense “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15).

And so, Wright tells the big story about God’s creative purpose in Adam, and the winding plan of setting that purpose back on its course through the call of Abraham, the election of Israel, and so forth. His expansion (not correction) of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works as the “covenant of vocation” is fruitful (on this, see the Horton review). What’s more, his foray into the prophets, especially his examination of the prophecies of the Servant in Isaiah are also very insightful.

This is also important because there is a tendency in some recent works in atonement theology to emphasize that language about atonement (sacrifice, justification, ransom, etc.) is metaphorical. Which is true enough as far as it goes. But some take that so far as to suggest that the metaphors were chosen by the apostles in a joyfully, haphazard way (and therefore culturally-relative one) to communicate something great had happened. Wright firmly insists that the apostolic presentation, indeed that of Jesus himself, is not random, nor interchangeable, but must and can only be understood in relation to the story of Scripture—as the culmination of the God’s works and ways with Israel.

Beyond that, his chapters on the First Century context and the Gospels might be my favorites. In a sense, much of this isn’t new, since the seeds were present in his Jesus and the Victory of God. That said, his special focus on showing Jesus’ self-understanding to be the broader matrix of the Passover and New Exodus, the forgiveness of sins which establishes the Kingdom of God is crystalized here with a clarity and specificity with respect to the atonement that hadn’t always come through in earlier works.

Indeed, I took particular delight in the section on the atonement in the Gospel of Luke. I took a special reading class in my M.A. in which I had to write on the atonement in each of the Gospels. Given the state of much of the conversation, I had a difficult time of it especially since I was probably too fixated at the time on finding particular sayings like the so-called “ransom saying” of Mark. But Wright’s attentiveness to the narratival-theological construction allows him to draw out representation, substitution, and the victory of the king in the stories of Barabbas, the encounters with thieves on the cross, and Jesus’ own depictions of his own suffering on behalf of Israel (213-216).

Which brings me to a final point of appreciation: Wright never loses sight of the fact that all of Jesus’ work must be held together, especially the cross and the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the goal of the cross and the cross is the shape of the kingdom. What’s more, the threads weaving the two together have been there from the very beginning of the story until its grand denouement.

As such, there is much to be commended and plenty that will preach nicely throughout any Lenten season series any pastor reading this may be planning.

These things being said, I must turn to a couple of criticisms and critical questions. This will be lengthy, but please bear in mind that the book is 400 pages long, so to engage any of his multiple arguments with any coherence requires more space than usual.

On Caricature

Probably the most distracting and potentially misleading part of the work is Wright’s polemical engagement throughout with his “works-contract” construct. Funny enough, it’s reminiscent of Douglas Campbell’s “Justification Theory”—an amalgamated construct of errors cobbled together as a foil for his own reading of Paul—something Wright dinged him for in Paul and His Recent Interpreters. Now, Wright has a sense many will suggest that’s what he’s doing: “Some will no doubt accuse me of caricatures…” (147). So he clarifies that what he’s describing is quite real in much of the popular preaching and teaching in the church and the experiences of average lay-people.

That is something I think we need to be prepared to admit. And not just as a concession that is a set-up for a counter-argument. I think there is plenty of bad cross-preaching of all sorts and much of it verges into the works-contract kind. Conservatives, especially the Reformed sort, need to be careful to correct the sorts of mistakes (trinitarian, Christological, covenantal) which lead our people to “hear” the sort of Moralistic Platonic Paganism Wright talks about. Indeed, we shouldn’t just avoid it, but actively try to correct it. Insofar as Wright is correcting those accounts, there is much that is helpful in his reframing of the narrative. (Though, that said, I think at the popular level, Joshua Ryan Butler’s recent work The Pursuing God probably is more helpful still.)

The problem, though, is at times he lets on that it’s not just bad pop-accounts under his scalpel. Rather, he suggests even the more nuanced accounts of the older views that “theologians” (those sad, well-meaning blunderers), fall prey to many of his criticisms. This actually comes out heavily in his big chapter on Romans 3. He throws out about 15 reasons why the “old” reading of the text doesn’t work. Again, if he’s talking about a simple 4 Spiritual Laws reading, sure. But if he’s addressing the nuanced views of say a Greg Beale, John Stott, Michael Horton, Jeremy Treat, or even more older covenantal thinkers like a Herman Witsius (see his Economy of the Covenants), I think only about 2 or 3 of those points would receive pushback. More on this later.

This is part of the problem of mounting the sort of criticisms he makes in a popular-level book. It’s “popular” in that it has no footnotes or endnotes, which is no sin in itself. But he is making much more complicated arguments than typical “popular” treatments, like certain arguments going on within NT scholarship (such as his subtle digs at the Apocalyptic school, etc.).

It seems that if you’re going to be throwing around charges like that, it’s only fair to name the names. It’s not only that the accused have the right to face their accuser—they ought to know if they’re being accused.

Which brings me to the point about novelty and the rhetoric of newness I have raised before. I joked online earlier that a key point in Wright’s book is that he’s “not a specialist in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries” (32). Which is fine. We have other specialists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for just that sort of thing. (I’m not one to talk as I’m not a specialist in anything yet!) The only problem comes when you decide to set up your own construction by way of explicit contrast with what was taught in those centuries. In which case, not misrepresenting or bowdlerizing them becomes more important.

With Wright, you get this sense that between the 1st and the 21st Century some decent things happened, but, it’s now that we can really get things sorted out. Past theologians are there mostly to be patted on the head for those things they didn’t botch, then corrected, but not so much to be learned from currently.

Now, I’m all for sola Scriptura, subjecting our tradition to the word of God afresh and so forth. There are any number of places where I’m going to side with Wright’s exegesis over, say, Calvin’s. But this sort of approach of Wright’s tends to have the danger of reinforcing in younger Christians a curiosity which is intoxicated with the novel and the “fresh” for its own sake. It’s the sort that leads you to think reading Calvin’s or Aquinas’ or Irenaeus’ exegesis probably isn’t worth your time in the first place. In which case, in our attempt to get free of 16th century cultural presuppositions, we’re exposed to the greater danger of becoming ensnared with 21st century ones.

Or again, for the parishioner who reads the book and loves it, if their pastor manages not to frame things exactly as Wright does here—if they happen to use theological shorthand at times that resembles the “works-contract” because they don’t have space to recap the entire biblical narrative—well then they’re now guilty of peddling MPP. I don’t think that’s Wright’s intent, but given the rhetoric, it might be (and likely will be) what people hear.

Puzzles Over Punishment

Moving to issues more properly exegetical and theological, I’ll admit that the status of punishment and propitiation in Paul leaves me a bit confused. I think it’s the result of Wright not saying a great deal, before he gets around to saying what he does mean. But even then, things don’t come out so clearly. Of course, it could just be my poor reading skills, but Horton also noted some confusion at this point, and Dane Ortlund was quite…frustrated  about this section.

What is clear is Wright is very sure he doesn’t want to tell a story about an angry, vindictive deity who gets angry we’ve done bad things and just needs to punish (i.e. kill something) to blow off steam, so he can love us in heaven. Good. Nor should any of us.

That said, Wright also doesn’t fit the vibe of the non-violent, post-Girardian (J. Denny Weaver, Brian Zahnd), or Neo-Anabaptist (D. Snyder Belousek) paradigm. Much of his rhetoric does at points, but he still says very clearly God has wrath, that he punishes sin, that Exile is the punishment of sin, and that punishment can even be a part of the righteousness of God insofar as it is part of his faithfulness to his covenant (in which he threatened punishment as the result of idolatry).

In all of this, Wright’s very good aim seems to be to show that there is nothing arbitrary about the connection between sin and the punishment of death. Choose the God of life, you get life. Choose the non-gods, the idols, obviously that will pay out in death. Now, theologically, I think his account of divine agency is fuzzy there as well. Since on the one hand he admits God is at work in the process in order to rule out a simple, mechanic process of cause and effect (338), but then goes on to the next page to almost reduce punishment language to merely a way of talking about the natural consequences of sin (339). So he seems to take with his left what he gives with his right at times in a way that is confusing.

But beyond that, in dozens of places, Wright says Jesus suffers the punishment of exile, the consequences of Israel’s sins, the curse of Torah, and so forth as their representative and therefore their substitute. The forgiveness of sins, “comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole” (211; cf. 240, 337). So, again, this is quite explicitly not an anti-penal-substitution work per se.

Second, it is also clear he wants to make sure that nobody ever tells the story of Jesus and the atonement without setting it within and as the culmination of the story of Israel. That is precisely when the image of “punishment” can threaten to become central to the whole story, and turn things from a Biblical drama, to a pagan one (339). This is also an important thing to be avoided.

He affirms most of the component pieces of penal substitution, then, even if he rearranges some of them and modifies others, especially in the reading of key texts, especially in Paul. And it’s there in these modifications that many questions arise for me, and I think might confuse others.

Romans 8:1-4

In Romans 8:3, for instance, he repeats his long-standing claim that Paul God condemns “Sin in the flesh of Jesus”, but not Jesus himself. Okay. On one view, that might mean something like, “Jesus, enters the story of election as the True Israel, enters their accursed state, assumes responsibility for it, for all their sin and idolatry, and suffers the penal consequences in a representative, substitutionary way in his death. In that death, God condemns our sins, but we know what he really thinks about Jesus.”

Here’s one oddity about that view.

Right before that, Wright makes a point of saying that Romans 7 is telling us that the Law was given to Israel (at least in part) so that “Sin” could be drawn to one point, heaped up and shown for what it is, “so that it could be condemned there once and for all” (282). But “Sin” in the singular refers to “the powers unleashed by idolatry and wickedness”, a sort of short-hand personification of this, and maybe even “the satan” (284), who dominates and enslaves humans who have handed over their power to the powers in their idolatry; sins lead to and become and empower Sin (280). And so he says:

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…Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus.  Now, to be sure, the crucifixion was no less terrible an event because, with theological hindsight, the apostle could see that what was being punished was Sin itself rather than Jesus himself… (287)

And so, he sees it as “penal” and even “substitutionary” since because of it “sinners who are ‘in the Messiah’ are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not” (287).

I have to be honest, I still don’t understand what it means that God condemns Sin personified in the flesh of Christ. Again, if you’re trying to parse the difference between condemning Jesus as a sinner loaded with guilt, or the one who assumes guilt for others, or the one who assumes liability to punishment, there are a number of scholastic distinctions that can help clarify this point. If that includes “the totality of what sin causes in the world and its nastiness”, sure.

But once you throw in condemning Sin as the powers, or even as the satan himself, there is a bewildering lack of clarity, as there seems to be no mechanism for metaphysical or moral identification in which Christ’s death equals the condemnation of the powers or Satan. Nor is it at all clear how this condemnation of the powers or Satan or the total situation deals with the guilt and liability of human punishment. So this is a coherence question I’m left with.  (If you have any suggestions as to where I’ve gone wrong, feel free to comment below.)

Romans 5:8-11

Another section I have questions about is Romans 5:8-11. Admittedly contradicting his own earlier reading in his commentaries and books (272), Wright rejects the view that Paul says Jesus saves us from God’s coming anger (5:9), by being a present propitiation, having wrath fall on himself instead (connecting it with Romans 3:24-26). He thinks that doesn’t make sense anymore, though, because being “being justified in by his blood” is supposed to save us “from the wrath or anger that is still to come.” But if wrath has been meted out in Christ in Romans 3:24-26, “why would Paul speak of it in chapter 5 as still future”, or as a store of wrath still to come (2:5)?

Now, on its own, I’m not convinced that argument is very strong. It seems easy to speak of a proleptic wrath executed now in the Messiah which counts for believers, which anticipates and corresponds to a judgment of wrath still to come in the future and would fall on them were they outside of Christ. Or it is at least analogous to speaking of a proleptic resurrection in Christ now, which corresponds to a resurrection still to come in the future. I suppose that we could be dealing with a proleptic declaration that no wrath is coming for you because of the event of the cross, but it’s not at all clear or necessary. Not enough to make me prefer Wright’s new exegesis over his old, at least.

Wright says again later on in his discussion of Rom 3:26-27, that if in 5:9 (which he takes to be summarizing the effects of 3:26-27) being “justified by his blood” just means “being saved from wrath”, 5:9 would be a tautology “(“being saved from wrath, we shall be saved from wrath”). To this, I’ll simply note that some repetitions, or pleonasms, can be clarifying since it’s really a way of speaking of the same reality from different aspects.

Second, it is not necessarily the case that if 5:9 is summarizing the effects of 3:26-27, we have a strict tautology. Rather, it could mean that “being justified by his blood” (being declared in the right in the court, etc. etc.), Paul is clarifying that one of the effects is being saved from wrath in the future.

These linguistic or exegetical points aside, I suppose my theological question is whether Wright believes Paul to be saying that wrath is something entirely future, which is staved off by an act which is definitely not the execution of wrath or propitiation in the present. Based on certain passages, that’s very fuzzy (see 330-331).

But then I wonder if Paul thinks “condemning Sin in the flesh of Jesus” in the present is an act of God’s wrath? In the Old Testament, wrath is not simply an emotion, but often is another way of speaking of God’s judgment, his condemnation in accordance with his law. Off the top of my head, Ezekiel 7 clusters wrath and anger with the punishment of idolatry together as largely the same thing (cf. also 2 Kings 17’s narrative of Israel’s deportation). Another way of saying it is that condemnation or punishment is wrath considered legally.

In which case, if Romans 8:3 does speak of the condemnation of Sin because of which those who are in the Messiah no longer face condemnation in the future (8:1), it seems that Paul does think that at least Sin has suffered the wrath of God upon himself in the flesh of Jesus on the cross, though there will be wrath meted out in the future against sinners as well.

On a similar note, jumping out of Paul (and I suppose that’s dangerously systematic), when Jesus speaks of drinking the cup of God’s wrath in connection to the cross (Mk. 14:36; Matt 26:39; p. 221 in Wright) does he drink it then? Because that would seem to be the natural reading (see Jeremy Treat’s examination of the removal of wrath through Jesus in the gospel of Mark in The Crucified King, 132-133).

And if so, does Paul disagree that is what’s happening there on the cross (that Jesus is experiencing God’s eschatological wrath then)? Or is it just that Wright thinks Paul is speaking of a different sacrificial logic in this passage? Or maybe it’s a different kind of wrath at the end-time? In which case, is Wright simply saying that in those verses (Romans 3:24-26, 5:9, 8:3) Paul isn’t talking about wrath being suffered by Jesus, even though if you asked him, he would of course affirm he had on an independent logic? But if so, does that deflate the argument that Paul pointing to the deflection of wrath in the future means he can’t be relating it to the suffering of wrath in the present by Jesus?

I get that Wright’s a biblical scholar who looks askance at certain systematic constructions for flattening out, or dehistoricizing too many edges of the various texts. At some point, though, the systematicians get to look back and ask whether those edges are too sharp that they’ve become a reading hazard.

Of course, on Wright’s older reading, the reading where Paul talks about Jesus propitiating God’s wrath against sin now in the cross, saving us from his eschatological wrath in the future, it appears there is an easier, or more straightforward fit with Jesus’ and within Paul on this point. In which case, for now I suppose I’ll retain that version of Wright.

Romans 3 and Purgation

Now, I should say something very brief about his argument in chapter 13 about Romans 3:21-26. In the first half of the chapter he drops anywhere between 10 to 15 arguments against taking it in a way that fits with a “works-contract” view, both the “bargain-basement” outline he sets up (301), as well as the more nuanced versions. Now, about 12 of them are great arguments against a very simplistic “Romans Road” presentation, but I think the points behind them can be easily incorporated in the “nuanced” versions as well (including Wright’s older view).

One point which doesn’t fit so easily concerns what he says about the redemption or Exodus that comes through putting Jesus forth as a hilasterion of Romans 3:25. Wright has changed his views from his commentaries and earlier books here. He still thinks the term refers to the lid of the ark, or the mercy seat in the Tabernacle or Temple. But Wright no longer connects it to the logic of covering (327), nor to propitiation as he used to, where in the past God over-looked sin, but now he punishes it in Christ. According to Wright, if that was the logic, then Paul shouldn’t have connected it with the Day of Atonement (330).

Instead, he has adopted a different view which connects the logic of the Day of Atonement with cleansing and purgation, not covering or punishment (though for that matter, he thinks covering didn’t imply punishment either). On this view, the death of the sacrifice is ancillary to the all-important releasing of the blood which the priest manipulates in the Day of Atonement ceremony. This blood symbolizes the power of life which cleanses. So death is necessary to the release blood, but isn’t central to its meaning in that sense (329).

The idea is that through idolatry, humans become sinful, their sins leads to and bring the pollution of death. But death is contrary to God who is the source of life and is a defilement of God’s holy Temple. This defilement accumulates throughout the year around the people, the land, and the sanctuary. In order to enter the Presence of God, then, “the sacrificial blood is the sign of God-given life, a life more powerful than death, a life therefore that purifies both sanctuary and worshipper. Cleansing thus enables meeting” (334). Jesus is the place where God and man, heaven and earth, meet, and this is enabled by his cleansing blood.

In the end, it seems he’s suggesting some sort of “propitiation via expiation” view whereby wrath is turned away by cleansing. Or in light of the way he connects it to the other texts above, a “future propitiation via present expiation/purgation” view. At least that’s the best I can come up with given the back and forth of affirmations and denials gives in the chapter.

Now, Wright has many things going for him. For one thing, he’s right that not every sacrifice in the OT has mainly to do with punishment and too often they have been treated as such in popular accounts. What’s more, there is definitely a clear element of purgation and cleansing in the Day of Atonement rituals as scholars as Jacob Milgrom and others following him have shown. Some of the more interesting bits of recent scholarship on sacrifice of late has been around pinning down just how that is supposed to work.

In response, though, I’d like to note a few things to complicate matters and suggest that death is significant as death for more than its life-blood releasing function.

First, I suppose I simply disagree about the blood. Leon Morris’ old linguistic work on the meaning of “blood” still has merit. Considering the wider use of the term blood in the Old and New Testaments, the dimension of life released by violent death within it cannot be entirely erased or reduced to life simpliciter.

Second, and this may be too broadly formulaic, but ever since Genesis 2-3, death just is the punishment for sin, the curse of the Law, the outworking of wrath, etc. in Scripture. While not all deaths are suffered as the direct judgment of God, theologically there is no death which is not the result of the curse and wrath of God. It seems very hard, then, to eliminate this meaning entirely from the Day of Atonement sacrifices.

Third, I am not sure Wright lets the Passover and the Day of Atonement interplay do enough work. At the Passover, though atonement isn’t the main point, the blood on the door acts as a covering protecting Israel from the angel of death, the judgment and wrath of God destroying the sinful flesh of the representative firstborn of every house. In the Passover, there is protection from the wrath of God against guilty sinners, yes through the covering of blood, but also through the death for death equation.

Finally, I can only note that Leithart’s recent account of sacrifice in Delivered from the Elements of the World (91-121) as a very helpful alternative. He takes into account all of the most recent developments in the very dense literature of sacrifice and comes up with a nuanced account of substitution and sacrifice, which includes all that Wright says and more. So he has purgation, but he also manages to retain the notion “covering” in kipper and kapporeth translated to hilasterion without reducing it strictly to purgation. What’s more, he also maintains the importance of the death of the sacrifice dealing with the problem of sinful flesh. Perhaps his attunement to the ubiquity of that problem accounts for much of their differences.

Or again, you could go back to Wright’s older reading.

I realize this last section on Romans 3 is my weakest in the subsection, but it’s gone far too long anyways, so let me make just one last criticism.

Disarming the Power of Prosecution

As I noted earlier, Wright is very helpful in not separating what God has joined together: kingdom and cross, the forgiveness of sins and the defeat of the powers. The quibble I have here is that I think he’s missed a key, linking element.

Take Colossians 2:13-15. Here Paul talks about the ironic stripping and defeat of the powers in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. For Wright, the powers are both the earthly principalities, rulers and authorities (Herod, Caesar, Caiaphas, etc.) as well as the “dark powers that stand behind them and operate through them”, or the demonic (259). How does the forgiveness of sins coming through the cross which “blots out the handwriting against us” (Torah which excluded Gentiles and condemned Jews), lead to victory over the powers?

Wright thinks that it happens because the powers gain power precisely in our idolatrous worship of them. We hand over power to them and they enslave and dominate us. But “when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power” (259). Because sin is defeated, the idols power is broken. Because I am dead to the Law, it’s divisions don’t divide, and the blessings of God can flow to the Gentiles. Now, this is all true, but I think it misses the fact that part of the power of the powers is that of accusation.

The Devil is the Accuser, and part of his power over sinners the judgment of the Law itself which rightly condemns them for sin, even if Satan a perverted prosecutor. We are guilty. We do stand condemned, exiled from God’s presence. So when the powers accuse, they have a point. That is, until they are stripped of that point. Verse 15 logically follows off of verse 14 because the forgiveness of sins comes in doing away with our guilt and sin in it condemnation in the cross of Christ.  This is how we are “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). It’s also why in John’s vision, in one of the great cosmic battle scenes, the saints are said to conquer over the “accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10) by way of “the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).

I’m not trying to be nit-picky, but since one of the strongest points of Wright’s work is to tie these two themes together, that this key bit of analysis remains murky is puzzling and weakens the argument as a whole.

(For more on all this, Jeremy Treat’s The Crucified King is the best work to date treating both biblical and systematic categories. On Colossians and Revelation, see 111-127)

Conclusion

I suppose I’ll cap this all off by saying, this I think Wright is eminently helpful on the atonement in general, but that he is even more so in his earlier works. There is plenty to take, digest, preach, and indeed, live in this volume. But I worry, though, if this is someone’s first or second volume on the atonement or the cross, especially someone without theological training, the heavy polemic as well as a couple of the material proposals would be confusing and misleading. Of course, no volume is without its flaws, so go ahead and take it up, just bear some of these things in mind.

That said, I will continue to read Wright with anticipation and delight, and continue to recommend his books, but on the subject of the atonement, I will likely be referring to his earlier works.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: If you’re looking to read or recommend accounts that avoid MPP, but don’t quite fall into these issues a few volumes come to mind. I’ve already mentioned Joshua Butler’s popular work as well as Jeremy Treat’s. Both are top notch. Also, Adam Johnson’s Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed is fantastic. Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker didn’t get a lot of attention, but I think that’s a mistake since it’s a very balanced, recent offering.

Finally, I have my big, long post on answering objections and correcting mistakes around Penal Substitution which has more recommendations at the bottom.

 

“Jesus Came To Die”: Notes on a Gospel-Twitter Spat

jenkins-tweet

Debates on theological Twitter are somewhat Sisyphean affairs. You have 140 characters per tweet to lay out your position, or parts of it, which means that inevitably something’s going to be lacking in precision or comprehensive balance. One such spat flared when Bethany Jenkins, one of TGC’s editors tweeted, “Yes, Jesus is compassionate, kind, & just. But centering our faith on his ethical teachings is dangerous. He came to die. That’s the gospel.”

This set Twitter aflame with much consternation and quote-tweeting. I don’t know how many people I saw, especially on the Progressive/Post-Evangelical Left, referencing the tweet and commenting on what a muddle it was, or how it was perpetuating troubling dichotomies between Christ’s life and death, or ethics and theology, etc. And I get it to a degree.

Bad gospel dichotomies do happen. I have read Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy, and plenty of N.T. Wright, so I know all about the dangers of sidelining the gospel of the kingdom, or turning it into a mere transactional accomplishment, neglecting the resurrection, and so forth.

And if that’s what I thought Jenkins was doing, I might be shaking my head alongside everyone else. We must not be reductionists about the person and work of Christ. The good news is truly cosmic in scope.

But was it, really? I don’t think so.

Savior, then Teacher

Allowing for the limitations of Twitter as a medium, I saw this and took it to mean something along the lines of, “Christ must be a Savior before he is our Teacher, otherwise you’ll be set up for failure.” Essentially it was a very short warning against the kind of move that has been made for years–trying to take Jesus as a Teacher, but not as a Savior. And if you scroll down the Twitter thread, Jenkins clarified something along those lines. I suppose others didn’t take the time.

Now, the issue Jenkins is addressing is a perennial problem. J. Gresham Machen warned against it in Christianity and Liberalism. You might see some of Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans as a broadside against Liberalism’s reduction of the gospel to FOGBOM ethics (Fatherhood of God, Brotherhood of Man). C.S. Lewis formulated his famous “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument in Mere Christianity against it. More recently, Tim Keller’s always going on about how if you take Jesus as an example without accepting him as a Lord, it will crush you. Mostly because without forgiveness, the power of the Holy Spirit–the gifts of God’s unique, saving work in Christ–you simply can’t live out Jesus’ kingdom-ethics.

Reaching farther back, Martin Luther said something similar in his preface to the Gospels, “What to Look For and Expect In the Gospels.” He says we are to read the Gospels and see two levels in its teaching about Christ. He is our example as well as our gift. But there is an order:

The chief article and foundation of the Gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend as surely as if you had done it yourself; indeed as if you were Christ himself. See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the Gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God, which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was ever able fully to express, and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at. This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means.

As the saying goes, the gospel is good news, not good advice. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we forgo taking Christ as an example, or taking up our own cross, or attempting to live the kingdom-life that he modeled. No, he continues:

Now when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you. See, there faith and love move forward, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and a person is happy and fearless to do and to suffer all things. Therefore make note of this, that Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian.

In which case, you can see the motive for frontloading Christ’s work as Savior before we get to Christ’s work as Teacher. That would just be to turn Christ “into another Moses” as Luther put it–in his very Lutheran way.

On “The Gospel” and Shorthand

Okay, so maybe you can go along with all of this, but what about reducing the gospel to “Jesus came to die”? Well, a few points.

First, as we already noted, it is Twitter. It’s a limited format. You can’t say everything all at once. I can’t even do that in this blog.

Second, scholars argue about the lexical range of the term “gospel” all the time. In the NT, we have it variously associated with the kingdom, his death, his resurrection, etc. often without mention of the other elements. I think one helpful way of thinking about it is understanding that you can talk about the broader content of the gospel (the kingdom of God, new life, reconciliation, etc) as well as its narrower enactment, or the means by which it is made available (Jesus’ unique, saving life, death, and resurrection). The word has some flex to it.

Third, even within that, older theologians like Calvin note that Paul and others will often invoke one element of the story of Christ as a stand-in for the whole. It’s a metonymy (or synechdoche, which I always confuse). So, Paul will talk about knowing “Christ and him crucified” among the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:2), when surely he talked to them about Christ and him crucified, risen, and ascended as a matter of first importance (1 Cor. 15:1-7).  In Pauline usage, at least, the cross implies the resurrection and vice versa.

In which case, it seems perfectly fine in a loose context to speak of Jesus coming to die as a stand-in for the whole of his work as its culminating climax. Paul spoke of justification and eternal life coming through “one act of righteousness” (Romans 5:18). Indeed, it’s particularly fitting if the point you’re trying to make is the unique, punctiliar nature of Christ’s work accomplished on our behalf.

Jesus himself, right before being handed over to be crucified, prayed before the Father and “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27).

Surely nobody would accuse Paul or Christ of being reductionists about Christ’s gospel? Well, then in that case, it seems permissible from time to time to speak of it in a focused, metonymic way.

Especially on Twitter.

Interpreting Like Jesus 

I don’t usually write posts about Twitter spats, but Jenkins is a friend and I have to say, I found the multiple-person, Twitter-mobbing, pile-on to be unfair (even if some were more reasonable and inquisitive than others). I suppose this is something of an exercise and a plea for interpretive charity. Especially across tribal lines. To paraphrase a textually-questionable saying of Christ’s “Let he who is without Twitter-infelicities cast the first @.”

Or drawing from Jesus’ ethics more positively, “read as you’d like to be read.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Everybody Wants to be Christocentric, But What Does that Even Mean?

christ pantokrator“Our theology ought to be truly Christocentric.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that phrase used, nodded along, and then had to stop and ask myself, “Okay, but what does that even mean?”

Apparently I’m not the only one.

In a short article entitled “A Note on ‘Christocentrism’ and the Imprudent Use of Such Terminology” [WTJ 68 (2006): 253-60], Richard A. Muller registers a number of prudent protests about the contemporary discussions about whether certain kinds of Reformed theology are “truly christocentric” enough. Mostly this has to do with in-house conversations that started in the 20th century about whether there was a major difference between Calvin’s “Christocentric” theology and that of later theologians like Beza and the Post-Reformation Orthodox who followed. Calvin was supposed to be a good, pre-Barthian Christocentric theologian, while the rest of the tradition unfortunately took a wrong turn and based all their theology around God’s predestinarian decree, making things lopsided and decidedly un-Christocentric.

Without getting into all the details of Muller’s article and the Reformational historiography (which has largely put the aforementioned myth to bed), one the main benefits of Muller’s discussion is calling attention to the rhetorical gamesmanship that gets played when people throw the term around as a trump card: “Well, I’m just being Christocentric in my theology.” As if anyone doesn’t want to be “Christocentric”? Indeed, if you cruised through history and asked any major theological figure, especially in the Reformed tradition, “Are you trying to be Christocentric or centered on something else?”, I’ll give you to ten to one that all of them will answer, “Of course, I’m Christocentric. Jesus is everything to me.”

What’s even more helpful, though, is the attention he calls to the equivocation and confusion around the term that muddles things. “Given that such diverse figures as Irenaeus, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Jerome Zanchi, Jacob Arminius, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ι. Α. Dorner, Gottfried Thomasius, E. V Gerhart, Henry B. Smith, William Adams Brown, and Karl Barth have been described as christocentric thinkers, some distinction is most surely necessary” (254).

And so, in order to clear the ground for a more helpful use of the term, Muller gives a taxonomy or typology of at least three kinds of christocentrism that scholars could be using to describe a theologian.

First, there’s what he calls “soteriological” christocentrism. Basically, on this view, a theologian or theology is Christocentric if it confesses that Jesus Christ is central to the process and work of salvation. At this point, unless you’re essentially a Pelagian, a radical liberal, or something on that order, most traditional, Christian theology qualifies as Christocentric at this foundational level.

Second, he says there is a kind of which places a “systematizing emphasis on the Adam-Christ typology and the priority of Christ over Adam.” He calls this “prototypical” christocentrism in that there is importance given beyond Christ as savior, to Christ as a logically and theologically prior to Adam in the plan of God for history. You can find this in the “incarnation-anyways” line of theology, or in the theology of Irenaeus or Scotus and Fransiscan order.

Third, he dubs “principial” christocentrism in that it makes Christ the “principle” of theology, building on the last two “still more speculatively, that the Christ-idea must be used as the interpretive key to understanding and elucidating all doctrinal topics.” Forms of this can be spotted in the liberal tradition from Schleiermacher onwards, which makes the Christ event a central, often corrective, interpretive grid over Scripture, and the rest of theology. In some cases, Christ is the only revelation. Barth, in a different way, is a chief representative of this type, though he has been (fairly or not) accused of more than christocentrism, but rather, christomonism (on which, I have little bit here).

Given these varieties of “christocentrisms”, it does seem wise to have some handy terms like this and be clear about what we mean when we use them. Especially since Muller notes that it is largely this last, historically-novel form that has been assumed in various discussions, and then used as the standard by which previous theologies have been judged, instead of taken on their own terms.

One more point that ought to be brought out is the way the issue of Scriptural interpretation plays a role in all of this. Muller brings out the various “christocentrisms” with respect to the structure of theological systems. And that’s good, but this also bleeds out into the issue of have a christocentric or “Christ-centered” hermeneutic. In other words, what do we mean when we say we read all of Scripture in light of Christ? How do these three types of christocentrism match up (if at all) with different approaches to typology and so forth? Can you only be christocentric in the first sense and still affirm a “Christ-centered” reading of Scripture, or do you have to buy into the second and third kinds as well?

Are we talking about seeing Christ as the fulfillment of all the prior history of revelation in a way that still acknowledges it as true revelation? Or about all prior revelation as somehow pointing to Christ and therefore legitimately read as testimony to Christ? Do we see all of Scripture pointing to Christ, then, because the eternal Son, through the Spirit, by the will of the Father is actually the active agent of revelation throughout all of redemptive history?

Or are we talking about Christ as a corrective revelation that sort of overlays prior revelation in a way that is disjunctive and discounts earlier portions as lesser, false, and in many ways misguided? Is the event of Christ, then, the only truly true revelation? In other words, we’re back the issue of the Jesus-Lens or the Jesus-Tea-Strainer and the theological presuppositions that go along with them.

Not that we’ve solved anything here, but I don’t think there’s enough clear thinking around this in popular writing on the issue.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Cross Between the World and Me

betweenAfter a number of months of having it on my to-do list, I finally got around to reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Written as an extended letter to his teenage son, Samori, it is part memoir, part manifesto, and part social history, giving voice to Coates’ experience growing up Black in America—with all the ironies, tragedies, dangers, and, yes, joys that affords.

I guess I read it for some familiar reasons. Like many, I’ve read Coates’ thoughtful and provocative pieces on race, justice, and public policy at The Atlantic. My curiosity was provoked by the wide variety of conflicting reviews of it, ranging from fawning praise to cynical rejection.

I’d like to say the biggest reason I read it was to try to and better understand my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fellow Image-bearers, who live, day to day, in a different set of skin than I have. At least, as much as reading a book can help with that. If I’m honest, I think it’s important to kids like me (having grown up in schools reading about the Civil Rights era) to stay “woke” about the reality of race in America. And I say this as someone not typically prone to liberal, white guilt, since I’m not liberal (being raised conservative), nor white (being Arab/Palestinian and Hispanic, a first-generation, somewhat Brown man born in the States).

The experience—because it’s something of an experience reading Coates—was challenging, nonetheless, both emotionally and intellectually. As a theology student, it’s become impossible to avoid reading texts like this in theological perspective and processing them in that fashion. But I don’t think I have to stretch things too much to see the work as a deeply theological one. Indeed, despite his avowed atheism, I found much of Coates’ analysis down-right Pauline.

In what follows, I’d simply like to note some the broadly theological points of contact with and criticism of Coates work and the Christian gospel. None of what I say will be ground-breaking or likely that eye-opening. All the same, I do feel the need to process this as best I know how, so here goes.

The Body

My first impression was related to the feature of the work that almost every commentator I’ve read has touched on: the viscerality and physicality of its anthropology. Coates’ writes constantly of the experience, the value, the suffering, the reality of living in the black body. Philosophically this flows in part from Coates’ materialism, but there’s more to it than that.

With story, with carefully chosen metaphor, and torrentially applied adjectives and verbs, Coates aims to communicate the experience, the consciousness of living as a black body who can be taken, dominated, used, threatened, destroyed, and plundered at all times with seeming impunity. The hardness, the constant fear, then, of growing up on the streets of Baltimore, is not merely psychological, but physiological, welling up in your bones, your muscles, tendons, and instincts too close, too raw, too ingrained by force of history, experience, and even birth to be a strictly philosophical reality.

In attempting to understand, we instinctively reach for analogous situations, even if they don’t quite fit. The closest I’ve come is thinking about life in post-9/11 as an Arab in the States with the last name Rishmawy. I remember getting called sand-nigger, dune-coon, and Taliban on the football field where I got speared in the back for being a “Palestinian.” I remember the chilly sweat that broke out on my skin at the airport, when the guard at the metal detector told me I’d “be in a world of hurt” if the detector went off again when I walked through. As I thought about rendition stories I’d read about, it didn’t matter that I had my cross necklace and Bible in my backpack and coming home from a mission trip—the threat to my young, Arab body coursed in every nerve of my soul. It was a reality bodily and yet more than simply bodily. But again, it’s only an analogy.

In any case, throughout the whole work, every time he spoke of bodies I kept thinking through the dynamic of flesh/body (or sarx/soma) in the New Testament. At times, these terms can simply refer to the physical, biological material of the person—flesh and bones. But most biblical scholars will point out that more often than not, these terms are more of a complex of the spiritual and historical forces that are located within our lived, physical reality. In Paul, the sarx can refer the corpse as the site of the created and fallen dimensions of human experience and nature apart from Christ, while the body is often referring to embodied, human experience in the renewed sphere of the Spirit in Christ.

As I noted, Coates’ viscerality is quite materialist—his description of the spirit and the soul as the charge flowing through his nerves is formally reductionistic in that the physics of the body are all there is. But in another way, his emphasis is quite biblical, even Pauline. Christians confess in their creed, not merely the immortality of the soul (though we affirm it), but the resurrection of the body in its fully physical, material, social, and historical dimensions. To certain forms of spirituality and philosophy, Christianity’s focus on resurrection can appear crassly materialistic. But for Paul, what we do in the body, not merely in our “spirits”, matters. We were created and redeemed, body and soul, at a price–so the body is an object of moral concern and a site of moral care (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

Many of us can tend to lose sight of that, however, losing our understanding of the damning, bone-crushing, destructive, disembodying (quite literally) nature of sin, or the gloriously physical relief that the resurrection promises. Coates’ language, his emphasis, I think, has the salutary effect of reminding some of us Christians of the material dimensions of being created good as bodies in the world. As Christians, we surely believe there is more, but we must not believe there is any less.

Sin and “The Dream” as Kosmos

Coates is also a theologian of sin.  This is almost more obvious than the viscerality of his language. For Coates, to tell the story, the history, the experience of the black body is to tell the story of its plundering, its rape, enslavement, subjugation, and burial under the edifice of white society and persons who “think themselves white.” Narrating the black body means narrating the sins committed against it.

There isn’t a blind, Manicheanism in Coates’ telling, though, with pure martyrs and pure villains. I was struck throughout the whole at Coates’ self-analysis, his coming to self-consciousness and questioning of his own motives, his own narratives, his own ideas that he speaks of in response to his mother’s writing assignments. Coates operates with a heavy hermeneutics of suspicion, but one that’s aware of the pervasive nature of sin in the self–in all selves—especially his own. It’s downright Puritanical (not in the bad sense) in terms of its self-interrogation.

Connecting to this theology of individual sin,is his broader cosmology and theology of culture as expressed in his idea of “The Dream”, which he outlines for his son and constantly warns him against. For those acquainted with biblical cosmology, the Dream functions like “the World” or kosmos in John and Paul. The world is not simply the physical creation, but rather the cosmos including and especially human culture under the power of sin, hostile to God and his ways of peace. For the Christian, the world with its desires, pressures, systemic drives, and allure to conformity that threaten to overwhelm the believer with its ways of thinking, behaving, and being. It presents us with visions of the good life (money, sex, power, success, etc) and the standard, often-times godless patterns of procuring it.

The Dream, for Coates, is that of living “white”, of acting white, sequestered away in the safe, suburban communities, built on the sweat, tears, blood, bones, and centuries of black bodies plundered for their wealth–separated from the hard streets of Baltimore where being black and a child could still get you robbed of your body. It is a dream upheld and made manifest in school systems, social practices ranging from slavery to redlining to arrest quotas to the common trope assumption that because a young, black man won’t keep his pants up and shows the defiance to authority common to just most 15-year old boys, he’s kind of asking to get shot. Indeed, when you look at it closely, it’s not just that the Dream functions as the World, in many ways it serves as an angled description of what Scripture is actually speaking to.

And so, every time Coates tells his son Samori to resist the deep-seated ways his culture will try to shape and form his affections, his assumptions, his own dreams, desires, and prejudices, I just keep hearing Paul say, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world…” (Rom. 12:1-2).

This, I think, is connected to that deep sense of sin as act and Sin as Power. That’s not how he’d put it, of course, but there is a very thick theology of universal, personal complicity, and at the same time of an external, systemic, supra-personal Power that enslaves, enlists, and overwhelms. It’s not just whites, but blacks striving to be white, who are co-opted and conformed to the Dream. Again, it’s sin as individual acts, but more than that, it is Sin as a power that works its way into corporate systems that have their own logic which, in some sense, can’t be overturned simply by the exercise of the will of one good-hearted individual.

As a Christian, I’m tempted to have recourse to the language of the demonic. Christians have always known that despite God’s rule and Christ’s reign, there is some sense in which world is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the god of this age who tends to blind and deceive the world about the truth, especially of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Why wouldn’t he work through social and political systems to lie and wreak death in the world now, if that’s what he’s been doing since the beginning (John 8:44)?

Religion, Truth, and the Crucifixion of the Body

Naturally, following a discussion of the “plight”, a theological read of the book might lend itself to a section on “The Gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates.” But, to be honest, I couldn’t find one. I don’t believe that’s the point, either. Coates isn’t offering his son a grand, universal hope, a solution. He’s trying to prepare him for reality in a world without a coming universal redemption, with people and systems that don’t know they need one. To carve out a life—one with love, tenderness, integrity, and a sense of honest pride—neither enslaved, nor blind to the world as it is. As one friend put it—he’s preparing him for life in this present, evil age when that’s the only one on the horizon.

And this is where I think about Coates’ atheism and honest confession that he’s always been alienated from the comforts of religion, having never been raised with them. There’s an understandable ambivalence (though, I don’t sense a hostility) towards religious faith in the book. On the one hand, there is his early incomprehension at those taken with its comforts—their willingness to endanger their sacred, fragile, and single-shot bodies against clubs, against dogs, against death. Religion seemed to cultivate a carelessness about the body. “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body…”

What’s more, there’s the problem of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Coates has seen the quick rush to forgive in some churches and communities—calls that seem to glide quickly past the problem of Abel’s blood still wet on the pavement crying out for justice. Or the calls for non-violent suffering for black people from those watching the protests in the streets of Fergusson comfortably seated on their couches in the suburbs. Or reconciliation without any sense of restitution—or even an indictment. You can sense his realism, his history, his cosmic sense of injustice rise up much like protest atheism chronicled in Camus’s The Rebel.

How can religion of this sort not seem like a palliative?

All the same, Coates wonders if there’s something he’s missing out on. Something that he is alienated from in the faces and the souls of men and women he respects who believe differently on this score.

Wales WindowAnd this is where I think about the book I’m reading for Lent, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. The front-cover is an image of the “Wales Window” given to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was donated as a gift from the people of Wales after the 1963 Klan bombing that rocked the church and robbed the life of the four little, black girls in their Sunday best.

The stained glass is striking. In it, we see a Christ with brown skin, arms outstretched. Rutledge notes that the position of his head hangs at the same angle as that of an ikon called “Extreme Humiliation.” According to the artist, the two arms outstretched are doing different things. The one is thrust out, stiff-arming the powers of death and injustice, while the other reaches out, offering forgiveness for the world. Under him are the words “You do this to Me”, which come from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here Christ identifies himself with his people, declaring that whatever is done or not done unto them, for good or ill, for woe or weal, for blessing or curse, “you do this to me.” You do this unto me.

The central mystery of the Christian gospel is the Holy God who out of the fullness of his own, perfect life stooped, became incarnate, identifying himself with the whole of humanity, and, as the Creed has it, suffered under Pontius Pilate. The Savior is the Divine Son who knew no suffering, yet assumed human flesh, a Body in midst of a dominated people to suffer on our behalf and rise again. God became a gendered, embodied Jew in the 1st Century, heir to hundreds of years of political oppression at the hands of colonizing invaders (Babylonian, Persian, Greek), mostly recently of an empire, Rome, that stood as the chief political, economic, social, and religious power the world had ever seen. He grew up under the eye of the soldiers of a people who prided themselves as superior to every other people; a people who used subject nations and cultures to prop up their own; a people who threatened anyone who crossed that system with torture and death. And eventually it was under the administration of their laws, their justice, that his body hung naked, exposed, broken, shamed on a cross, tossed on the garbage heap of history, scorned even by the elite of his own people. In the particular sense that Coates speaks of being black, or at least, not white—that is the space that the Son of God entered in his body. That is the place that his body died.

I cannot do justice to the multifaceted character of Christ’s death, not with 3,000, nor 3,000,000 words, but the thing we must say is that the death he died, he died willingly for sin. He died in order to wipe us clean from the sins we commit as well as deliver us from the Sin we are enslaved to. He died in order to atone and liberate. He died to do justice, to ensure that forgiveness is not offered on the cheap. That reconciliation does not simply walk past restitution and truth, or support a culture of impunity.

Indeed, one the most powerful accomplishments of Christ in the visceral, flesh-ripping, godlessness of the cross is the way it tells the truth and opens our eyes to the violence of sin in the world. The hideousness of the cross, Rutledge notes, the crucifixion of this man who is God, puts to flight sentimental religion and forces us to face up to the malignant, persistent ugliness of sin. It unveils reality, much as Richard Wright writes in the poem from which Coates draws his title. To look upon “the sooty details of the scene” of our Savior upon the cross is to have them “thrust themselves between the world and me.”

And I think this moment in the Gospel is important for me to sit with when reading Coates. Obviously, a concern for the body and Coates’ totalizing fear of its loss, of his ultimate powerlessness and inability to secure it or that of his son, is crying for an answer in the good news of the Resurrection. For Christians, death is not the concluding word, and in his resurrection, Jesus actively and powerfully breaks the power of Sin, the World, the Dream, by showing that despite appearances to the contrary, it does not have the final say of things. This is what gives us hope, gives courage, gives the moral steel that accounts for the paradoxical attitude of Christians towards the body: it is precious, it is good, it is inviolable, and yet it’s loss is not our absolute terror. God’s promises do hold us up.

But the resurrection only comes as good news after we’ve sat in the shadow of the cross. Jesus is the Resurrected one only as the Crucified one. Hope for reconciliation, both personal and cultural, only comes after we’ve truly reckoned with the nature of the rupture, confessed, and repented. This is one of what I take to be the glories of the Christian gospel: it forces you to see the truth about the world, about yourself, about your neighbor—both the grime and the glory—and it is precisely there where the God with a broken body meets us.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

I have no conclusion, really. With a book like Coates’ there’s always more to say. I haven’t weighed in specifically on any particular charges, critiques, details of history, or political implications to be drawn with respect to things like reparations or #BlackLivesMatter. And I’m not really sure that’s the point.

I suppose at the end of Coates’ work–beyond a better, heavier understanding of the struggles of my neighbors–I can’t help but come away with a stronger desire to plumb the depth of the Christian gospel, to grasp the power of Christ and him crucified and speak it into the darkest reaches of the human condition without maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. A hope hell-bent on truth. A reconciliation forged through justice. A God who enters our life and then invites us into his, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Of the Father’s Love Begotten: The Virgin Birth as Image of the Trinity

holy spiritThere’s no way around it–the miracle of Christmas is a trinitarian event through and through. Contemplating the baby born of the virgin Mary, sleeping in the manger in 1st Century Bethlehem, eventually will draw you into eternity to worship the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As I was reading Christopher Holmes’ excellent new work on the Holy Spirit this week, I ran across a fantastic passage where he is draws out some of the implications of Augustine’s theology of the Trinity by illustrating them by way of the virgin birth:

Jesus is conceived in the power of the Holy Spirit. His earthly birth points to his heavenly birth; his mission reiterates his procession. He is born in the Spirit in time, conceived in the Spirit, who is the Father’s love for him, and throughout his life is filled with the Spirit, who enables him to be who he is even in death, the Son of God. Thus the Son’s mission of obedience reflects the Son’s generation from the Father, who in generating him gives him his Spirit, the same Spirit whom the Son pours out on all flesh and who is “proper” to the Son as one eternally born of the Father. This is the Father who eternally generates the Son in the Spirit. Accordingly, the Spirit is the love of the begetter for the begotten; and the begotten for the begetter.

– Christopher Holmes, The Holy Spirit (New Studies in Dogmatics), 77-78.*

Now, there are a number of fascinating threads to tease out in this dense passage.

First, we must remember that all of God’s acts are Triune acts, even the ones we typically associate with one of the persons. As the old principle has it, all of the Trinity’s works outside the Trinity (Creation, Redemption, and Consummation), are indivisibly those of the whole Trinity. How could it be otherwise if the three persons truly are the One God?  But it’s also important to note that there is a trinitarian unity displayed in the indivisible works in history such that we begin to see the outlines of God’s inward, eternal life as Father, Son, and Spirit. In fact, it’s God’s work in history as we have it in the New Testament that originally forced the Church to recognize that God is eternally triune.

Second comes the issue of the “processions.” Augustine (and I’d argue, the New Testament) teaches us that the persons of the Trinity, while being one God, are distinguished from one another by “relations of eternal origin.” In other words, in all eternity, God has been self-related as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit such that there are patterns of relations between the persons. The eternal “processions” of the Son and the Spirit (God does not become a Trinity) are the key realities distinguishing God’s internal life. Classically, it’s been said that the Son proceeds from or is “begotten” or “generated” by the Father (fathers beget sons), the Spirit is “breathed out” or proceeds from the Father and/through the Son, and the Father is the eternal source who proceeds from no one. This is who the persons are–their relations are their identities and so forth.

Third, as already noted, there is a close relationship between who God is in eternity and who he shows us he is in history. When God works in history, while we don’t see all that God is in his eternity, we do see truly who and what God is. To put it another way, when the Son and the Spirit are revealed to us in their “missions” in history (becoming incarnate, being sent by the Father and Son to the church, etc), these missions map onto or are indicative of the eternal processions. There is fit between them. There is something about who the Son is in relation to the Father in eternity that makes it suitable that he specifically is the person who becomes incarnate for our salvation.  The one who is eternally begotten by the Father above is now begotten below without a human father. So while God is not reducible to what he does in history, what he does in history reflects the glory of God’s eternally resplendent being.

Fourth, in the Western tradition, especially after Augustine, the Church has recognized that the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from the Father is not apart from the Son. In fact, the Nicene Creed teaches that he proceeds “from the Father and from the Son.” This is because in Scripture he is shown to be sent by both Father and Son (cf. John 14:16, 15:26; 16:7), and is often referred to as both the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son (Acts 16:7; Phil. 1:19). So if the Son also sends the Spirit in history and the Spirit is that of the Son, that points to the Spirit’s procession coming from the Son as well as from the Father, though in a unique, differentiated way.

Now, Augustine adds another dimension to this. He says that the Spirit is not only the Spirit of Son and Father, coequal with both, eternally one with them, God proceeding from God, but on the basis of some key texts, that the Spirit’s unique processions ought to be thought of as the love of Father and Son. All of this transcends human speech, of course, but the Spirit is the Love of God for God–he is the Love that God is, precisely as the love of the Father and the Son. 

In which case, there are multiple dimensions of depth to that classic hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” The Son is eternally begotten in the love of the Father “ere the worlds began to be.” The Son is begotten in time, born of a virgin (“that birth forever blessed”) by the Father’s love for his wayward creation. But this happened, “by the Holy Ghost conceiving”, God’s own Love is the agent of Christ’s mysterious, miraculous appearing. Of the Father’s Love begotten, indeed.

In the virgin birth, we don’t simply have a neat trick, then, a cool miracle proving that Jesus is God, but rather a sign, a mirror refulgent with glory of the Holy Trinity.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For those curious about Holmes’ work, I commend this post to you whereby he introduces his project.

5 Wrong Ways to Talk About Sin (TGC)

sinChristianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.

If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.

You can read the rest of the article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria