The Love and Wrath, the Yes and No, of a Simple God (A Quick Response to Vreeland on Atonement)

wrath among the perfections of God's lifeI hate to ever criticize a fellow bearer of the most excellent name of “Derek” (especially if he spells it correctly), but I had a few thoughts on a recent post by Derek Vreeland over at Missio Alliance. Entitled, “Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement Necessary?“, Vreeland attempts to do some parsing around the difference between penal substitutionary atonement and propitiatory satisfactional atonement in the wake of the SBC resolution on the matter.  I won’t summarize the argument, as you should go read the piece and then come back.

Before I raise some complaints, I’ll say two positives. First, it’s a careful piece with an irenic tone. Vreeland goes out of his way to try to avoid caricaturing views he’s critiquing as positing a bloodthirsty, savage god. And, second, praise be to that God that he takes the time to interact with someone like Packer, noting agreements where possible.

That said, I had some some quibbles, so I’ve sort of hastily written a few out since someone asked me about the piece online.

First, about the proper translation of hilasterion as “propitiation”, “mercy seat”, or “expiation.” I’ll simply note that the “mercy seat” reading, which was supposed to be the advance over propitiation or expiation, doesn’t obviously rule out a propitiatory dimension of the term, especially since that was the most common meaning in the Greek. You have to imagine the LXX writers used it to translate kapporeth for some reason. More importantly, even if the denotation is immediately expiation, that doesn’t necessarily remove the notion of turning away wrath. As Fleming Rutledge recently noted in The Crucifixion (p. 282), you could easily have a “propitiation via expiation” logic at work, since getting rid of sin would presumably turn away God’s wrath by removing the object of God’s wrath. (And while we’re on the subject, Rutledge is fantastic. Here’s my review.)

Second, we come to the status of wrath. I’ll just quote this paragraph:

Anger or wrath is not a literal attribute of God. As used by Paul in Romans, wrath is a metaphor for God’s eschatological judgement. God is not a mixture of love and wrath or love and anger. God is essentially a holy community of persons within whom there is no anger. God is pure love. God judges not from a place of judicial retributive anger, but from a heart of love.

This seems confused to me.

First, classically, God is not a mixture of anything, including his attributes. God is simple, not composed of parts. We might think of his attributes or perfections as simply the One God considered from a particular angle. Hence they are not in conflict with one another but in perfect harmony and, importantly, mutually-defining.

Now, there are all sorts of debates in Church history about how to think of God’s wrath. Whether it’s a primary attribute of God’s eternal nature (love, holiness, etc), or whether it’s something like a secondary attribute derivative of another kind of like mercy. Mercy is God’s goodness in action as it encounters an object of pity and in need of aid. God has always been good, but now in history we encounter his goodness in a new way in our state of need.

In the same way, we might think of God’s wrath as God’s inherent righteousness in the encounter with sin and sinners who violate God’s shalom and set themselves against him and their neighbors. The underlying reality of wrath, then, just is God’s eternal righteousness or justice, which is God himself. For a rich discussion on this point, I’d commend Jeremy Wynne’s monograph Wrath Among the Perfections of God’s Life. 

Connected to this, there is absolutely no reason to set up a false binary between “love” and “judicial retributive anger.” It is entirely possible to love someone and be angry with them. And not just in a petty way, but precisely out of love it is possible to absolutely be furious with someone’s self-destructive choices which hurt themselves and others. (On which, see this article by Tony Lane on the relationship between Wrath and Love.)

What’s more, it’s also entirely possible to love someone with a perfect love and recognize they have violated the law in a way that renders them liable to judgment and be angry at them for precisely that reason. Recall that since God is simple, God’s love is holy, pure, and righteous. In which case, God’s love is not the sort of love which lies about sin, failing to recognize it, name it as what it is, and treat it accordingly (which is precisely what is judicial, retributive anger does).

In which case, it’s manifestly not a matter of finding the right balance of wrath and love, which would indeed be a troubling and silly suggestion.

This brings me to the next point:

The problem Jesus came to address was not the problem of a “holy” God of justifiable wrath punishing a world of sinners. Jesus did not come to die for our sins to remove God’s hostility and turn God’s no towards us into a yes. God’s attitude towards us has always been yes. Jesus came to reveal to us what God is like (John 1:18). When God in Christ encountered sinful people, did he punish them? Did he express God’s no to them? Did he condemn them? Did he exhibit hostility towards them? No! God forgave them, healed them, and restored them. As a God of love, God certainly does not approve of sin. However God’s rejection of sin and evil doesn’t imply that God is personally offended by sin and needs to be “satisfied” in order to forgive.

Again, Vreeland builds on that false binary. God can love someone, have a fundamental stance of “yes” towards them, but still have a moral need and responsibility to say “no” towards their sin (and towards them insofar as they are the authors of their sins). In other words, the infinite God can have a volitional stance towards which simultaneously considers his creatures as created in his Image, but distorted through their sin.

Here’s one thing to keep straight about this: God’s “need” for satisfaction isn’t the “need” of a petty, insecure person. It is the moral “need” of the obligation of God as the perfectly righteous King, the Lord, the Judge and Guarantor of the order of the whole earth to maintain justice within it and keep his word of blessing and cursing according to the Law he has set forth. In which case, to sin against him isn’t just a matter of mere personal insult, but rather a legal violation of the justice and goodness of all creation. And so judgment is a serious condemnation, a “no” against it.

That being said, there would be something perverse about God if we couldn’t affirm that his judicial “no” to sin as the Lord, King, and Judge wasn’t still a very “personal” one. It’s not a matter of mere disapproval. Recall for a moment a brief catalogue of sin: idolatry, murder, adultery, rape, racism, war, robbery, child abuse, pride, sex trafficking, etc.. If God really is the loving King who is personally committed to the good of his creation, there is a sense in which he has to be personally offended by such atrocious violations of the shalom he desires. Anything less than a personal wrath, a personal, righteous opposition to sin that must be dealt with, robs us of a God of personal love.

Beyond that, I’d add that this still isn’t a simple matter of turning a “no” of judgment into the “yes” of forgiveness. Instead, it is saying a fundamental “yes” to humanity and forgiving us by executing the “no” against sin through the judgment of the cross. I’ve made this point at length before, but God being God means God forgives in a unique, Godlike way, which means doing away with sin and guilt to which he must stand opposed and treat as it deserves.

I mean, this has been clear (in the Reformed tradition) as far back as Calvin who stated it is precisely the Father’s love which motivates his sending of the Son in order to remove the obstacle of our sin and guilt which intervenes between us (“by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ”). Or to put it differently, God isn’t moved from wrath to love because of Christ’s death. He’s moved by love to satisfy his wrath against us by removing our guilt and enmity through the blood of his cross.

I would go on, but this is already too long, but I think you get the gist of my point. While I appreciate Vreeland’s work, I think it buys into too many false binaries about love and wrath as well as fails to appreciate the sort of need involved in the notion of satisfaction be ultimately helpful for us on this point.

If you’d like more along this line, I’ve got my big post on objections and answers to penal substitution. Also, since Vreeland cited it, I suppose I’ll link my review to Wright’s atonement book, whose exegesis of Romans 5 and 3 (and 8, for that matter) I found confused.

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 remain aware of the conflicted 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 hermeneutic 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.

Connected 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 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 that because a young, black man won’t keep his pants up and shows the defiance to authority common to 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 that, 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

Retribution in the Sermon on the Mount? (Or, the Jesus You Find At the Bottom of a Well)

JJesus and the crowds.D. Crossan has apparently written a book about How to Read the Bible and Remain a Christian. In light of the obvious, almost trite, irony of a man whose rejection of basic Christian orthodoxy extends to even a denial of the resurrection of Christ, attempting to tell people how to remain Christians, one must wonder what the point of engaging such a work with seriousness. Well, the reality is that he’s taking up one of the most recent causes du jour, which we’ve had reason to deal with on this blog on a regular basis: the problem of reconciling violence in the Scriptures with the allegedly non-violent God revealed in the preaching and person of Jesus.

Now, I’ll be honest, I haven’t read the text, but I have read his earlier God and Empire text, and from what it looks like, Crossan’s working with much the same presuppositions, with less of a focus on America-as-Rome narrative, but cashing out a more general thesis about Scripture and violence. Collin Garbarino has an excellent review of the work over at First Things. He quotes Crossan’s main thesis:

Throughout the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, every radical challenge from the biblical God is both asserted and then subverted by its receiving communities—be they earliest Israelites or latest Christians. That pattern of assertion-and-subversion, that rhythm of expansion-and-contraction, is like the systole- and diastole cycle of the human heart.

In other words, the heartbeat of the Christian Bible is a recurrent cardiac cycle in which the asserted radicality of God’s nonviolent distributive justice is subverted by the normalcy of civilization’s violent retributive justice. And, of course, the most profound annulment is that both assertion and subversion are attributed to the same God or the same Christ.

For Crossan, the Bible needs to be read in light of Jesus, but not the Jesus of Revelation, or anything like that, but the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount given in the Gospels. Garbarino quotes him again:

This biblical patterning of yes-and-no justifies my choice of the nonviolent Jesus of the Incarnation over the violent Jesus of the Apocalypse as the true Jesus. Put simply, the nonviolent Jesus is the Christian Bible’s assertion, acceptance, and affirmation of the radicality of God while the violent Jesus is its corresponding subversion, rejection, and negation in favor of the normalcy of civilization.

What we see here is another variation, albeit a bit more radical, of some of the Jesus Tea-strainer hermeneutic.

In an oversimplified nutshell, for many, the arrival of Jesus, his preaching in the Sermon the Mount, his rejection of retaliation against enemies, his message of forgiveness, love, and open-armed reconciliation leads to a clear conclusion: Jesus rejected wholesale the logic of justice as retribution, or any component which contains violence. “Mercy over justice”, if you will. If that’s the case, then we must read the Scriptures as presenting us with two logics: a retributive, violent logic present in Deuteronomy, the Law, OT narratives, and Paul’s more unreconstructed moments, and a prophetic, non-retributive logic given to us in the prophets and ultimately in Jesus that overcomes retribution. God simply is not like that. Now go reorganize your atonement theology, doctrine of God, and revelation accordingly.

I bring all this up because I found his response to this sort of thing so helpful and compelling. With apologies to First Things, I’ll go ahead and quote it at length:

It seems to me that Crossan will need to cut the Sermon on the Mount down to just a few sentences bereft of context if he wants to maintain a Jesus who is primarily concerned with everyone getting their fair share. When read in context (that’s something we historians do), the Sermon on the Mount contains quite a bit of retributive justice.

The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel that condemns the Jews for their inability to see Jesus for who he was. At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew juxtaposes the king of the Jews with the gentile magi, a comparison which doesn’t leave the Jewish king looking too good. At the end of the Gospel, Matthew records the people of Jerusalem shouting, “His blood be on us and on our children!” The Sermon on the Mount is an integral part of Matthew’s argument that the Jews missed their Messiah, not some parenthetical aside that somehow managed to slip into an otherwise tightly constructed theological narrative.

At the beginning of the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as being the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. Just as Israel experienced exile in Egypt, baptism in the Red Sea, and wandering in the wilderness, Matthew depicts Jesus as experiencing exile in Egypt, followed by baptism in the Jordan, followed by wandering in the wilderness.

Which brings us to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, like Moses before him, goes up on the mount to deliver a new law to the people. Crossan imagines that it’s here we see God’s distributive justice, “God’s radical dream for an earth distributed fairly and nonviolently among all its people.”

In Crossan’s defense, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount sounds warm and fuzzy. In the Beatitudes, Jesus announces that those who mourn will be comforted and that the meek will inherit the earth. It seems to me, however, that Jesus demonstrates good homiletic technique—hook the audience and then let them have it. Jesus moves swiftly from comforting his audience to causing great discomfort.

After pronouncing blessings on all of the good people, Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Wait a second—didn’t he just say that the poor in spirit receive the kingdom of heaven? So the poor in spirit must be more righteous than the Pharisees, the guys who were experts on the Law? The audience would do well to consider whether Jesus thinks them poor in spirit.

Then he says that we’re going to hell if we’re angry. And he also says that we’re going to hell if we’ve ever looked on a woman with lust. And then he says that we can’t defend ourselves from our enemies.

And then Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This talk of hell is pretty heavy stuff. Jesus’s law is heavier than the Law of Moses, and if you don’t follow his law perfectly, he says you stand condemned. Perhaps Jesus was referring to himself in those Beatitudes, not his hearers. After all, neither the prophets nor the Romans ever called the Jewish people “peacemakers.”

Here’s the frustrating part about this. There’s no real winning with this kind of hermeneutic, no matter how many texts you pile up.

One really can’t argue with Crossan, however, because his methodology ensures that he’s always right. If one brings up some contrary evidence to his thesis, he’ll just apply his editorial pen more liberally and label that bit of Jesus inauthentic. This isn’t how one ought to read the Bible if one wants to stay Christian.

The same thing is true with (some) other versions of Tea-Strainer hermeneutic. Produce yet another text in the Old Testament or Paul, or whoever, and it’s often simply a text that needs to be overcome, or subverted, or read backwards, sideways, or in a code we finally cracked in the 1970s.

Here’s the problem, though: either you take Matthew’s presentation as the proper context for reading Jesus’s words as Garbarino does, or you’re left with a very awkward operation of reading the words of Jesus as given to us by Matthew against Matthew. This puts us in the rather intellectually unenviable position of having to assert that Matthew is a somewhat reliable witness to the historical Jesus in many cases, but that he’s a rather poor one in others, or simply an inept theologian. It seems that he, as a disciple, or the disciples from whom he gleaned these stories, words, and theological interpretations didn’t understand Jesus quite as well as we do now. Reading at a 2,000-year remove in the 21st century, we’re finally piecing together the real, true, deep intentions of Jesus, using hermeneutical presuppositions given to us through the witness of the text, despite the text, that his disciples who authored the text have missed somehow.

Or again, I’ve made this same point with the accounts of God striking down Ananias and Sapphira as well as the Tetrarch Herod in judgment in the book of Acts. In the text, the author clearly identifies God or God via an angel, as ordering the very retributive judgment. Now, the thing to remember is that this is the same author as the Gospel of Luke, who gives us a fair amount of the picture of Jesus who tells us to forgo vengeance, love our enemies, and so forth. Either we’re to believe that Luke, or whoever you think wrote it, didn’t see the very clear contradiction, or maybe we should allow Jesus, and the Bible, to have a far more complex, yet unified message than that.

This, of course, is just a rehash of the old historical-critical Jesus Seminar problem. First, you take a statement or two from the Gospels that you label “The sorts of thing we know Jesus could say”, whether because it’s different enough from the kinds of things later disciples said, or its similar to the particular political movement you’ve chosen to set Jesus against, (or it fits with your 1970s-style political socialism) something like that. Then, you measure all the rest of the statements against it, usually pressing for strict dichotomies in order to rule out “the sorts of things we know Jesus couldn’t say”, or “the sorts of things we’re not quite as sure about.” At the end, you get the classic problem of historians staring down the well of history to find the Jesus behind the Gospels, only to end up seeing a Jesus who looks very much like a bearded, 1st Century version of themselves looking back up at them.

The same sort of logic is at work in a number of the Tea-strainer hermeneutics. Attempts to split Jesus off from the “retributive logic” found in Scripture inevitably leads to accusing the New Testament authors of a schizophrenic presentation of Jesus himself, or with the inconsistent attempt to uphold the Jesus of the Gospels, without actually upholding the Gospels. With Crossan, a bona fide historical critic, you at least get the benefit of an explicit acknowledgement of what’s going on.

Soli Deo Gloria

What do we learn of the Cross in the Gospels? (Mere Fidelity Podcast)

Mere FidelityThis week on Mere Fidelity, the boys and I discuss Jesus’ atoning work on the Cross as it is displayed and uniquely narrated in the Gospels. In other words, what specifically do the Gospel writers tell us about Jesus’ work as theologians intent on setting forth the saving significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection?

We hope this discussion spurs your Holy Week reflections along as we head towards Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

Soli Deo Gloria

When We’re At Our Worst (My Good Friday Sermon)

This last Friday I had the honor of preaching a brief meditation (13 minutes) on the Good Friday services at Trinity. Below you can listen to the audio (we couldn’t get video), and I’ve also posted the rough transcript below it. I pray it blesses you. 

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:66-72)

Intro – I’ve always been captured and, quite frankly, terrified by this story, ever since I was a kid. Maybe it’s not something that’s ever grabbed you, but growing up in Church, you wonder at the idea of denying Jesus. I mean, how, does that happen? I always figured that after 3 years walking around, seeing Jesus’ goodness, watching him feed thousands, raise the dead, walk on water, hearing his words, seeing his almighty power, and just, being with Jesus, that would be impossible. I just thought it was obvious. It was an incomprehensible enigma.

peter deniesI Don’t Know The Man – Of course, as I grew older, I began to see different layers to the story. For one thing, I started to get the danger of the situation. At this point in time, Jesus has been arrested, right. It’s Passover week and political tensions fills the air. Sensing trouble the Jewish leadership acts to get this rebellious upstart teacher out of the way, lest he disrupt their power or set off the judgment of Rome. So, they pay off the disciple Judas and find Jesus in the Garden, arrest him, and take him away. They set up a couple of Kangaroo Courts organized by the Sanhedrin being held in the courtyard and home of one of its chief members.

Now, at this point, all the disciples have fled. All of them, it seems, except for Peter. Peter follows at a distance, but he follows to see what happens. He goes further than all of the others.  Peter had some courage—courage and strength that none of the rest have. And yet, when push comes to shove Peter denies Christ. 3 times.

You have to see that this isn’t a momentary lapse. When you read the story, you see each time, his denial gets even more vehement. At first the servant girl notices him, and then later, noticing his distinct Galilean accent, they start connect the dots and think, “Well, of course this guy is with Jesus. Jesus is from Galilee. This guy is from Galilee. Why else would a Galilean be hanging out here?”

And so here we see fear at work in Peter’s heart. The fear that the council might rule to round up all of Jesus’ followers, or especially Peter himself, because just a few hours earlier it was he who had raised up a sword to defend Jesus. This fear, then, grips him with great force and so he denies. Actually, at this point he gets so frustrated to distance himself from Jesus that he can’t even say his name. Did you catch that? He calls him “this man”, and he even invokes a curse on himself to prove how serious he is.

And here, right here where I used to be most tempted to think, “How do you say that?” But now, now, I start to ask myself, “How different am I really?”

There’s a song lyric, by a band named My Epic that goes like this:

I always thought that I would have fought had I been alive
I would have stayed to the end, wept at Your feet, and died by Your side
yet again they beat You down and tear You
Limb from limb
but I keep my peace and my distance

Curse

See, I’m not sure I’ve ever denied Jesus publicly when pressed like that, but the older I get, the more I realize how completely and totally I’ve denied him. Because, you know there’s more than one way to deny Jesus, right? You don’t have to say “I don’t know this man” with your words to do it. With every careless unloving action to my wife I say, “I don’t know this man.” Every day I get up and live my day without reference to him I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time cultivate anger, pride, socio-economic disdain, or lust in my heart I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I chase money instead of generosity I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I keep silent about him out of fear of rejection by our culture, or neighbors, for being one of those “Christians” I say “I don’t know this man.”  In a million different ways, my life, and if we’re honest with ourselves, all of our lives have screamed “I don’t know this man!”

He Already Knows – And yet, and yet, that’s still not what grabs me about this text. The verse that grabs me are Jesus’ words. Peter hears the rooster crowing in the morning and he remembers’ Jesus words.

“Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

Jesus predicted this. Like so many of us, Peter was so sure of his own righteousness. Peter had even boasted earlier of his faithfulness and that even if everyone else abandoned him, he wouldn’t. And at that moment Jesus looked him in his eyes told him “Peter, here’s how you’re going to fail down to the last detail.” And at that moment, Peter’s failure hits him with crushing force of grief, shame, and sorrow.

I think many of us know that grief.  Many of us are kept from following Jesus because there is a dark well of shame for past failures thinking “God can never accept me after that. God couldn’t want a person like me.” Or, for those of us who follow Jesus, our inevitable failure, sin, and betrayal can crowd in on us with an accusing weight that torments the soul. When we think of our sin, we feel unworthy and unfit for service to Jesus, or we get weighed down with a pressure to make up for it with frantic good works.

Here’s the thought that doesn’t strike Peter that shocked me one day as I listened to the text: Jesus knew what he was going to do and loved him anyways. Jesus had a perfect knowledge of who Peter was, all of his fears, all of his failures, and how he would betray him at his greatest hour of need, and yet he still called him. Jesus knew Peter at his most sinful, his most rebellious, his most pitiful, and see all of that darkness loved HIM! Not the imaginary Peter that Peter thought Jesus did, but real one that he would even face himself, and he still came for him.

This truth is the beating heart of the Gospel. Paul, in Romans 5 says this:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

At the heart of the good news is a God comes to save us when we’re still sinners, before we do anything right. See, you and I constantly think we need to clean ourselves up before we come to Jesus, or we live in constant fear that this sin, this denial, this season is the one where God’s finally going to throw his hands up in frustration and disgust and say, “I’m done with you.”

On the Cross Paul says we see the ultimate proof God isn’t like that. How? How is Jesus’ death on the Cross proof of God’s great love for us at our worst?

So That We Might Be Known

In the Bible, the heart of life, of goodness, of salvation itself is to know and be known by God—to be in a true, whole, relationship with him. That’s what Jesus says in John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This is why the most terrifying words of Jesus was his warning to those who were fooling themselves into thinking they were believers and telling them that at the end, if they didn’t repent, they would come to him and he would say “Depart from me I never knew you.”

With this in mind, we can finally start to understand the crushing reality of Peter words when he curses by God’s name and says, “I don’t know the man”–he was showing us what our sin leads to. See, sin is a rejection of knowing God and all that goes with that. So, God’s righteous judgment, his wrath and the punishment we deserve is to give us what we ask for: a life without God, separated from all goodness, all love, all joy, all truth and beauty. That’s what sin asks for and that’s what sin gets.

On the Cross, we are told that Jesus suffers the judgment of God in our place. We deserve death and he receives it. We deserve spiritual separation from God, but he, as the only perfect one who ever lived, experiences it in our place so that we don’t have to. It is only when you see this that you understand that, while Peter is cursing his name, bringing the curse down on himself, Jesus is preparing to go bear the curse for him on the Cross so that Peter would be able to know the God that he’s denying.

And this is the heart of the Good News: we have a God who sees you at your worst, sees ME at my worst, and yet still loved us, and was willing to come, in some mysterious way, in the person of Jesus to suffer on our behalf, that we might know him. You have to understand, God doesn’t look down with shock. He knows it all. He saw it all with his eternal gaze–every sin, past, present, and future that you and I will ever commit and he went.

That same band has another song where they put it so perfectly:

See, Jesus never fell in love.
With open eyes He walked directly to the cross,
He knew exactly what I cost,
and He still went.

Childbodybride

In fact, he knew exactly who I WAS and he still went.

And this is  why we call this Good Friday. On this day we see the love of God revealed in Jesus’ suffering. We find a God who truly knows us and loved us to the full measure.

The promise is that if you put your trust in Jesus, and what he’s done for you on the Cross, you can know and be in relationship with this God. So the question is, “Do I trust him?” For some of you, you’ve never placed your faith, or accepted Jesus. If that’s you and you’d like to, you can find me or one of the pastors or staff after service and we’d love to talk to you.

If you have, but you’re still wallowing in sin, maybe you’ve been far, maybe you’ve been cold, maybe you’ve been wandering–the invitation is to trust and believe that even that is covered and you can trust him

The invitation is to believe today that we have a God who saw us at our worst and he still came.

Prayer – Father, let us understand the height and truly, the depth, of your love displayed in the Cross. Give us over to trust and faith in your good promise. Let us worship you with whole hearts for so great a sacrifice. Amen

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Due to the shortened time frame, I couldn’t expand on certain subjects. Here are some clarifying articles related to the issue of atonement, judgment, wrath, and love.

1. Tim Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understand the Fearful Symmetry of Judgment
2. 5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile
3. Can a God of Love Have Wrath?

Good Friday: The Active Passion of Christ

On Good Friday, more than any other day, we are confronted with the bloody reality of the passion of our savior. As my pastor pointed out this Sunday, we’re not talking about “passion” in the typical modern sense of “driving motive” or “overwhelming emotion”, but rather his trial, torture, and death on the cross. Christ’s passion is his passio, those events of which he is the patient, the one being acted on.

Sitting in service on Sunday, I reflected on how easy it is to see Jesus in his passion as pure victim. Many of us are tempted by centuries of paintings and passion plays to see a helpless Jesus hanging on the cross, bearing the sins of the world at the hands of sinful men. Or again,  at a theological level, some of us simply see him as a passive object of the Father’s overwhelming decree and action. While I don’t want to deny either human responsibility, or Jesus’ submission to the Father, I was once again struck by the fact that Jesus’ passion was an actively chosen one.

When confronted with Pilate’s claim to ultimate human authority, the very authority and power that would be used to subject him to the cross, Jesus responds with an assertion of divine sovereignty:

christ-carrying-the-crossSo Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10-11a)

According to Jesus, then, in submitting to the authority of Pilate and the hands of men, he is not ultimately at their disposal or mercy, but that of the One who reigns from a much higher throne.

Pushing even further back, Jesus goes on to clarify that this is not a will or authority imposed by his Father coercively, but one that the Divine Son himself actively chooses to obey:

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18)

While the task of the cross was one given him by the Father, it nonetheless taken on by the Son in the power of the Spirit as an outflow of the perfect trinitarian unity of will to save.

Jesus’ passion, then, was an active one. Every blow received from the hands of mocking guards, he received by his own choice. Every false trial he was put through, he stood in the docket freely. Each stumbling step he took towards Golgotha, he walked willingly. Any hammer blow driving the nails deeper into the wood through his hands, was one he sovereignly allowed to pierce his flesh. And that final breath he breathed out from the Cross? He expired it at the time of his own determination.

In other words, as one of my favorite bands puts it:

…Jesus never fell in love,
With open eyes He walked directly to the cross,
He knew exactly what I cost,
and He still went.

-My Epic, “Childbodybride”

Today, then, let us praise and love the Son as the Father does, for truly, he “lays his life down of his own accord” for us and our salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Crib Leads to the Cross (Or, the Fathers on the Incarnation and Passion)

At Christmas we celebrate the advent of our Lord, the mystery of Incarnation of the Son of God.  For those of us with a theological bent, it raises a question that theologians have asked for centuries: if not for sin, would the Son have become incarnate anyways? Or, is the Incarnation the central act of salvation or the Passion? Christ’s birth or Christ’s death? Which is logically prior? Obviously they’re both important, but the way you answer this question has implications for other doctrines down the line and there are good arguments on both sides.

Mysterium paschaleCatholic giant Hans Urs Von Balthasar addressed this question in one of the most fascinating atonement theologies of the 20th century, his Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, a meditation on the Triduum Mortis, the three days of Christ’s atonement: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday. Honestly, even though I’m not sure I can go for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday, brilliant though it is, most Evangelicals could stand to read his section on Good Friday–it’s worth the price of the book alone.

Before getting to the treatment of the three days, Balthasar argues that the Incarnation is clearly ordered to the Passion and that most attempts to reconcile the two trains of thought are misguided. Yet, the same time, if we look deeply into the Scriptures, the tradition, and the deeper theological logic, we will see that:

…to focus the Incarnation on the Passion enables both theories to reach a point where the mind is flooded by the same perfect thought: in serving, in washing the feet of his creatures, God reveals himself even in that which is most intimately divine in him, and manifests his supreme glory. (pg. 11)

East and West
Balthasar’s biblical arguments and later theological elucidation are both fascinating and convincing. The section that was most eye-opening for me in reading it a few years ago, was his section on the testimony of the tradition, both East and West on this subject matter.

Typically we are told that in the Orthodox East, a greater emphasis was laid on the Incarnation and that the Passion is accidental within the scheme, while the Latin West has placed a greater emphasis on the death on the Cross and so subordinates the Incarnation. Balthasar argues that this is a mischaracterization for “There can surely be no theological assertion in which East and West are so united as the statement that the Incarnation happened for the sake of man’s redemption on the Cross.” (pg. 20) Since this is somewhat uncontroversial of the West, specifically of the East he highlights that in their main theory, “the assuming of an individual taken from humanity as a whole…affects and sanctifies the latter in its totality, except in relation with the entire economy of the divine redemptive work. To ‘take on manhood’ means in fact to assume its concrete destiny with all that entails—suffering, death, hell—in solidarity with every human being.” (ibid.)

The Consensus
He then goes on to substantiate his claim with more citations from the Fathers than I have space to quote here; a number of them in Latin and Greek. I will reproduce only a few:

Athanasius

The Logos, who in himself could not die, accepted a body capable of death, so as to sacrifice it as his own for all.

The passionless Logos bore a body in himself…so as to take upon himself what is ours and offer it in sacrifice…so that the whole man might obtain salvation.

Gregory of Nyssa

If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say, not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.

Hippolytus

To be considered as like ourselves, he took upon him pain; he wanted to hunger, thirst, sleep; not to refuse suffering; to be obedient unto death; to rise again in a visible manner. In all this, he offered his humanity as the first-fruits.

Hilary

In (all) the rest, the set of the Father’s will already shows itself the virgin, the birth, a body; and after that, a Cross, death, the underworld—our salvation.

Maximus Confessor

The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains, as in a synthesis, the interpretation of all the enigmas and figures of Scripture, as well as the meaning of all material and spiritual creatures. But whoever knows the mystery of the Cross and the burial, that person knows the real reasons, logoi, for all these realities. Whoever lastly, penetrates the hidden power of the Resurrection, discovers the final end for which God created everything from the beginning.

Again, I have left out various citations by figures such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Augustine, and others (pp. 20-22). Still, as Balthasar notes, “These texts show…that the Incarnation is ordered to the Cross as its goal. They make a clean sweep of that widely disseminated myth” that the Greek Fathers, against the Latins, are focused on the Incarnation to the exclusion of the Cross. (pg. 22)

MangerThe Crib leads to the Cross
As interesting of a conclusion as this is for the history of theology, “more profoundly” says Balthasar, “the texts offered here also demonstrate that he who says Incarnation, also says Cross.” (pg. 22) Of course this should come as no surprise. In all these texts the Fathers were only repeating the apostles, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5),  and our Lord himself who said, “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (John 12:27)

As we look to the Crib, we must see the Cross in the background—both holding our Savior in his weakness and humility—the peaceful beginning pointing the agonizing end suffered for our sakes; the cries from the cradle foreshadowing the cries from the Cross. This Christmas, as we gather around to celebrate the mystery of Incarnation, we cannot forget the Passion.

Soli Deo Gloria