New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.

Richard Rohr on Atonement

Two generations ago, the landmark theologian in our tradition (Nazarene), H. Orton Wiley, wrote that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was inconsistent with Wesleyan (Nazarene) theological commitments, and therefore could not be our atonement theory. Franciscan priest and thinker Richard Rohr is also concerned that penal substitution has led western Christianity down very negative pathways. He writes,

“For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033– 1109] and has often been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written”). Scotus agreed with neither of these readings. He was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, blood sacrifice, or necessary satisfaction, but by the cosmic hymns of Colossians and Ephesians. If Scotus’s understanding of the “how” and meaning of redemption (his “atonement theory”) had been taught, we would have had a much more positive understanding of Jesus, and even more of God the Father. Christian people have paid a huge price for what theologians after Anselm called “substitutionary atonement theory”: the idea that, before God could love his creation, God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for a sin-drenched humanity. Please think about the impossible, shackled, and even petty God that such a theory implies and presents.  Christ is not the first idea in the mind of God, as Scotus taught, but a mere problem solver after the sad fact of our radical unworthiness….

We have had enough trouble helping people to love, trust, and like God to begin with, without creating even further obstacles. Except for striking fear in the hearts of those we sought to convert, substitutionary atonement theories did not help our evangelization of the world. It made Christianity seem mercantile and mythological to many sincere people. The Eternal God was presented as driving a very hard bargain, as though he were just like many people we don’t like. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and forgive his own children— a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive father were already far too programmed to believe….

Scotus, however, insisted on the absolute and perfect freedom of God to love and forgive as God chooses, which is the core meaning of grace. Such a God could not be bound by some supposedly offended justice. For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could not be a mere reaction to human sinfulness, but in fact the exact, free, and proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul says in Ephesians (1: 4). Sin or problems could not be the motive for divine incarnation, but only perfect love! The Christ Mystery was the very blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1: 1)….

It is no wonder that Christianity did not produce more mystics and saints over the centuries. Unconsciously, and often consciously, many people did not trust or even like this Father God, much less want to be in union with him. He had to be paid in blood to love us and to care for his own creation, which seems rather petty and punitive, and we ended up with both an incoherent message and universe. Paul told us that “love takes no offense” (1 Corinthians 13: 5), but apparently God was the big exception to this rule. Jesus tells us to love unconditionally, but God apparently does not. This just will not work for the soul or mature spirituality. Basically when you lose the understanding of God’s perfect and absolute freedom and eagerness to love, which Scotus insisted on, humanity is relegated to the world of counting! Everything has to be measured, accounted for, doled out, earned, and paid back. That is the effect on the psyche of any notion of heroic sacrifice or necessary atonement. 9 It is also why Jesus said Temple religion had to go, including all of its attempts at the “buying and selling” of divine favor (John 2: 13– 22). In that scenario, God has to be placated and defused; and reparation has to be paid to a moody, angry, and very distant deity. This is no longer the message Jesus came to bring.

This wrongheaded worldview has tragically influenced much of our entire spirituality for the last millennium, and is still implied in most of the Catholic Eucharistic prayers. It gave lay Catholics and most clergy an impossible and utterly false notion of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness— which are, in fact, at the heart of our message. The best short summary I can give of how Scotus tried to change the equation is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Christ was Plan A for Scotus, the hologram of the whole, the Alpha— and therefore also the Omega— Point of cosmic history.”

Rohr, Richard (2014-07-27). Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (pp. 183-187). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.

Sex, God, and North American Christians

North American Christians are experiencing all kinds of rumblings and changes in the culture around us regarding sex. A Nazarene university president who has shown himself to be wise, thoughtful, compassionate and Christlike is Dan Boone, who recently wrote Human Sexuality: A Primer for Christians. (This must win the “Least Inspiring Title Award of the Year.”) On the back cover Boone says that amidst all the new experimentation regarding human sexuality, Christians most often are found angrily condemning or fearfully quiet. Instead of that, he contends we should be in the middle of this societal conversation: “We have something to say about the body, singleness, chastity, dating, marriage, and same sex attractions. Not all of us will agree with each other… but informed conversation will trump angry judgment and fearful silence every time. My prayer is that you will begin to explore a theology of human sexuality.”

This sounds just like Dan, who has always called for charitable discourse. Something to know about Dan, he is not a fundamentalist calling for gay people to be ejected from church. Neither is he simply swallowing the narrative currently in vogue in the West regarding human sexuality and freedom. By allowing the culture to set the parameters regarding our conversation about human sexuality, I once heard Dan say, we have forced ourselves to try to come up with answers that aren’t from within the Christian story.  A friend gave me the book, and the first place I opened to said this:

“Sex is good, but it is not the end goal of life.  ….If intimacy and sexual behavior are essentially one and the same, I suspect one of our favorite virgins, Jesus, must have lived a half-life. I would also suggest that another of our favorite virgins, Mother Teresa, missed the essence of life and lived as a lonely, loveless, half-person. The idea that human intimacy is fulfilled only in sexual intercourse is a leap of disastrous proportions. Jesus, Mother Teresa, and a lot of my single adult friends are among the most alive people I know. The human need is not sexual intercourse; it is intimacy – to be known, loved, touched, understood, and cared for.

Sex is good. Yes. ….Trinity is not ashamed of naked human bodies…. Christians shouldn’t walk around blushing when the topic of sex comes up. Sex is the gift of our Creator. But when we connect the need for human intimacy with sexual drive, and assume that these two are automatically and inextricably woven together, we are in the wrong story.”

This is classic, vintage Dan. Thanks for writing something for us, Dan. I look forward to the read.

Tomorrow’s Ethical Issues

Some Christians today are still arguing if women can be in leadership. That seems laughable to me, though I realize that sounds uncharitable. More Christians today are arguing or struggling over the subject of same-sex marriage/attraction or whatever. When I think of some of the ethical questions that will face Christianity in the future, I wonder if some of our questions today will seem silly or small?

For instance, when it comes to joining crocodile DNA to human DNA so that our hemoglobin can go on less oxygen, so that we can walk around Mars with a less oxygenated atmosphere… yet those and other DNA changes start separating humanity into separate species who cannot interbreed… is that ok or not from the perspective of the Christian faith?

When we get the carbon nanofibers to the point we can build a space elevator (google it) and make the other planets more accessible because we don’t need to get out of Earth’s gravity well for takeoff, will it be ethical from the Christian faith’s viewpoint to spend the world’s wealth on an elevator when children across the Global South still don’t have clean water?

When trillions start getting dumped into terraforming Mars into a liveable planet like Earth (it’s about as close as it can get already), will we consider it ethical to do so when those same children in the South still don’t have clean water? What does the Second Coming look like from Mars? Will Christians argue that God made only Earth for humans?

Will creating meteor-buster missiles (to protect Earth from a mass extinction from a large hit) be considered by Christianity prudent, or lacking faith in God?

These are only up close, short term questions almost upon us. What about questions of dumping all your memories onto a computer chip and then reviving you in a cloned human’s brain? Is that people taking resurrection into their own hands?

What about taking a human brain and placing it in a mechanical body so that settlers don’t need life-support systems, and can settle on the moons of the outer planets like Uranus or Neptune? They will never be able to biologically reproduce, and their only flesh-and-blood part would be their brain — everything else prosthetic. Is that ok by Christian theology?

Point being, we have some wild and tricky questions coming. Sometimes today’s seem tame.

Thinking in 50,000 year Intervals

Living on the road while we travel speaking about our transition to SE Asia as development workers/theological educators, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the blog. But here is something I wrote a while back and not yet posted.

Something became apparent to me the other day.  I realized that many of my Christian friends approach today’s issues as if Jesus will return in 50 or 100 years, max. So if we just hold the line on this or that issue, just hold on, we’ll be ok. Other issues can be ignored, because they will never happen. I suddenly realized one of the reasons I often come to different conclusions than them is that I tend to think in 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 year increments. What seems like a hold-the-line issue in the short-term, when thought about in vastly larger time frames, suddenly becomes very different.

I probably have science fiction to thank for this. It deals in large increments of time. When I think of the changing face of certain ethical questions and I see how Christianity has changed it’s take in the last 2,000 years, I can’t imagine we are going to freeze frame for another 20,000 or 100,000! Or when I think about say, climate change, if Jesus is coming back in 20 years, no big. We don’t live on Fiji, so loss of shore-line isn’t of immediate alarm to most evangelicals I know in Pennsylvania. But when I think in terms of 100,000 year increments, the question isn’t simply How do humans utilize advanced technology without heating the whole planet via emissions? Nor just, How do we steward the oceans so we don’t poison them utterly? (PS I like to fish). No, the questions include but go even beyond that, to How do we plan now for the settlement of the solar system, and beyond? How much do we invest now in a space elevator and terraforming Mars and the moon?  If the Ross Ice Shelf hits the water and sea levels raise 20 feet, how do we handle 2 billion displaced people? That, by the way, is a real and potentially immediate question, because we don’t know what the tipping point is to increase the rate of slide to the point the whole thing just goes.

Short term thinking can be incredibly disastrous. Proverbs highlights this in the Bible. But I rarely hear Christians in North America call upon their Christian faith to think long term. I find most of them assuming a very short length to human history, as if we are at the tail end. When we Christians limit our interests to the immediate future, can we blame other people for concluding we have nothing to offer for a long-term durable civilization?

What have we been told about Pelagius?

My last five posts have been about the Augustinian iteration of Original Sin in Western Christianity and questions surrounding its usefulness in the postmodern world. During the same time, I was perusing a book called Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community, Ireland and to my surprise came upon this write-up about Pelagius, Augustine’s adversary on this subject. I am going to quote it in its entirety. When I was in seminary the ultimate trump-card in a dispute was to call someone ‘Pelagian.’ Once you did that, you won. But is it possible our take on Pelagius has been a bit truncated in the Augustinian-drenched theology we’ve been handed? Is it possible Christian theology needs a better, more fully Biblical doctrine of humanity than the version of Original Sin Augustine taught?

“Pelagius (c.350-418) August 28.   We have chosen to mark Pelagius’ memory on the feast day normally assigned to Augustine of Hippo, who did so much to malign Pelagius and who is the source of many erroneous teachings and emphases that still dog Christian teaching today!

Pelagius was a British theologian, teacher, writer and soul-friend who settled in Rome. He was highly spoken of at first – even by Augustine. He taught about the value of soul-friendship. He celebrated the fact that the goodness of God cries out through all of creation, for ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.’

But soon he was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur.

Augustine tried twice in 415 to have him convicted of heresy – on both occasions Pelagius was exonerated in Palestine. In 416 Augustine and the African bishops convened two diocesan councils to condemn him and Celestius, another Celt. In 417 the bishop of Rome called a synod to consider the conflict, and declared Pelagius’ teaching entirely true, and urged the African bishops to love peace, prize love and seek after harmony. They ignored this, and in 418 they persuaded the State to intervene and banish Pelagius from Rome for disturbing the peace. The Church then was obliged to uphold the Emperor’s judgement, and excommunicated and banished him, though no reasons were made clear. He returned to Wales, probably to the monastery of Bangor.

Two centuries later all the same ideas were still to be found in Celtic Christianity. History is written by the victors, so most reports of what Pelagius said are given from Augustine’s view-point, not in his own balanced and sensible words. He was also criticized for being a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his own strength, and for wearing his hair in an inappropriate style!”*

There are quite a bit of things we could say about all this, concerning the affect of politics, cultural prejudice and personal dislike swirling around this debate between two early theologians. But I will limit myself to saying: we are 15 centuries out from Augustine. Do we really want to allow this one man to dictate directions in Western theology simply because he held sway in majority positions and the Protestant Reformers liked him?

*(Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community. HarperOne: 2002. Northumbria Communty Trust Ltd.)

Postmodern Considerations on Original Sin PART FOUR: non-Western theology

Our discussion of Original Sin, Creationism, and literal interpretations of Adam and Eve’s “Fall” took a turn toward how different theology will look when written outside the cultural matrix of Greco-Roman thought, so common in Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian theology.

My friend:   I’ll give you that doctrine has changed or evolved through time, there are some pretty universally held truths that have been in play since shortly after the canon was established. Namely, trinitarian doctrine, incarnational doctrine and the doctrine of sin and salvation. Btw, I wouldn’t claim that the doctrine of creation, the fall, and original sin is merely a motif. They are doctrines that have historically been taught by the church.

Me:  I want to say that doctrines need to be enunciated/interpreted in ways that mean something understandable here and now. Original Sin and its ramifications look a lot different before – and East of – Augustine than after. And all those doctrines have been shaped primarily in the context of Greco-Roman culture and its fallout. So now, when Asian and African, and Native American cultures start wrestling with Christian theology, I want to be as aware of their right to work through doctrine within the context of their cultures as has already happened in “our” Greco-Roman culture. I don’t expect their theology to look nearly as Greco-Roman as ours. And I don’t think that makes it any less Christian. To do so would be to be stupendously emic and fail to apply any etic sense to our own situation.

My friend: Is that syncretism?

Me:   We’d be less than honest if we didn’t think our baptism in the early centuries with Greek Philosophy wasn’t a kind of syncretism. So, if you interpret the Bible through the matrix of non-Greco-Roman cultures, and you use their matrixes like we used Greco-Roman, some people would certainly yell syncretism, but I don’t think it is. If Christianity had moved predominately East into India instead of West into Greece/Rome in the early centuries, and if the creeds had been formed in India or Vietnam, we’d sure have nothing that sounds like the Nicene!  So, I think it takes some serious calm sitting back and watching and listening and waiting to hear a generation of non-Western scholars argue each other out before people like us start saying “syncretism.” Listen to what Clement of Alexandria (lived c. 150-215 AD) said about Greek philosophy. If a former Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist said this about their former religion, would we accuse them of syncretism?

Clement of Alexandria said this: “Before the Lord’s coming, philosophy was an essential guide to righteousness for the Greeks. At the present time, it is a useful guide toward reverence for God. It is a kind of preliminary education for those who are trying to gather faith through demonstration. ‘Your foot will not stumble,’ says Scripture, if you attribute good things, whether Greek or Christian, to Providence. God is responsible for all good things: of some directly, like the blessings of the Old and New Covenants, of others indirectly, like the riches of philosophy. Perhaps philosophy too was a direct gift of God to the Greeks before the Lord extended his appeal to the Greeks. For philosophy was to the Greek world what the Law was to the Hebrews, a tutor escorting them to Christ. So philosophy is a preparatory process; it opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.” (STROMATEIS 1.5.28.I-3)

If Clement can say this about Greek Philosophy (and certainly Christian theology written for centuries bore the express stamp of Greek philosophy in its wording and cultural matrix), then can’t we say the same thing about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and indigenous religions?  Constructing Christian theology within the matrixes of these worldviews is no different than what Western theology in the Christian tradition did with Greco-Roman philosophy. If it is syncretism, then western theology is entirely syncretistic. I won’t call it that. I think the more apt phrase is ‘culturally incarnational.’ And, we shouldn’t expect that all of them will be infatuated with Augustine’s version of ‘original sin.’