In our time the doctrine of the atonement/ Jesus crucified has come under attention once again. The way it is usually explained within Western Christianity, it sounds like the all too familiar abusive father who takes his rage out on innocent bystanders, often his own child, and then dresses it up by wrapping his ugly behavior up with the word love. The idea that the Creator God Himself has to kill someone in order to forgive people has understandably caused people to wonder what kind of God we are talking about.
Into the midst of this, world-renowned theologian N.T. Wright has written an absolutely incredible book. He has clearly familiarized himself with both popular and academic treatments of the atonement written recently, and pastorally identified the very real problems our current understanding of the crucifixion brings to people. This is understandable, he says, and it’s fine, because the ways that the crucifixion is understood in Western Christianity have de-railed from the actual story and meanings in the Bible. In fact, he demonstrates, the way in which the prevailing theologies of Western Christianity are explaining the atonement end up de-biblicizing it, de-Judaizing it, and paganizing it.
If we start reading the Bible at the beginning, we find the problem is not that God made the world as a testing ground to see if people would go to heaven or hell, and then makes a way for the first rather than the second. No, that is not the story we find when we read the Bible’s story. And when we make that the story, we start mis-understanding the cross in all sorts of ways that fall far short of what the followers of Jesus meant when they said that he died “for our sins” and “in accordance with the Bible.”
Wright’s book is called “The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion.” It is a life-changing, worldview-changing book; one of the best things Wright has written in a while, and that’s saying something. Run, don’t walk, get a copy, and read it.
To those of you who are Christians working in the complex tangle that is International Development (the primary audience for whom I created this blog in the first place!), friends, I salute you. N.T. Wright has written, perhaps more than anyone else in the last 30 years, regarding the robust meanings of resurrection. Below, is a short quote from him.
“…the Eastern Orthodox churches have always emphasized, when Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility ….When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus…”
“Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us as passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world…. The music he wrote must now be performed.” (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: 2006).
As we approach Easter, may the image of resurrection be a powerful driver in your work. The resurrection/ new creation is the template for reconciliation, restoration, redemption, healing. And may new creation in us make His Way and Goal (Omega) credible to the world around.
Saint Paul: “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5: 17)
I have a theological litmus test for any action, whether it is a decision by a church, a development initiative by a NGO, interaction between adherents of different world religions, economic theory, or just about anything else.
And this is it: does the action contribute to human thriving?
I think this covers it.
Throughout Scripture the issue keeps coming back to the Creator’s desire for His creation to thrive. While we have tended to read the (selected) texts since the Reformation to be simply about a contractual agreement to escape punishment for sin, the Scriptures continually draw our attention back to the Creator’s desire for shalom for His world.
The problem in Noah’s generation that brings on the apocalyptic flood? Human thriving cut off by violence across the earth.
God’s continual concern with the welfare of the unempowered throughout the Torah, the writings and the prophets; Jesus’ hometown self-definition in Luke 4 (18-21);his ministry of healing the sick; his contention that he came to bring abundant life; Paul’s confidence that in the Son all things are reconciled in heaven and on earth and all things hold together in him – all of these are about God’s desire for His Creation and image-bearers to experience wholeness and well-being.
Recall Irenaeus’ contention that the glory of God is man fully alive.
If for each theological direction we take, each decision we render on an action, be it church or community, this litmus test brings us to the crux: does it advance human and creational thriving? This cuts past culturally-tied issues in Scripture which no longer obtain, it frees us from a legalism that always devolves into dysfunction, it breaks out of adventures in missing the point that accumulate around nit-picking Scripture battles and brings us to the central question What does God want in His world? We need a litmus test that engages that exact question, and I believe this one does.
I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote. Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.
So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:
“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment…. Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”
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.
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.
“There is such a thing as ‘the deceitfulness of sin’, and it’s very powerful. You start by allowing yourself the apparent luxury of doing something small which you know you shouldn’t but which you think doesn’t matter. When it becomes a habit, you stop thinking it’s wrong at all. If the question is raised, you are ready with rationalizations: everyone does it, this is the way the world is now, you mustn’t be legalistic, no good being a killjoy. This creates a platform for the next move: here’s something else which a while ago you would have shunned as certainly wrong, but it’s quite like the thing you’ve got used to, so maybe… And before too long you’re rationalizing that as well. And once the mind has been deceived, the habit will continue unchecked.”*
I’ve seen this play out many times in so many lives. Wright has summed it up, spot on. I could not have come close to saying it any better.
N.T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone. Westminster Press: 2003.
I’ve been reading Yale theologian Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. (His former teaching home was Fuller Theological Seminary, among other places, for those of you for whom that means something). It’s a good read, a fairly academic argument about why and what the role of faith in the public square should look like in today’s secular, pluralistic world. One of the things I appreciate about Volf is that one of the themes in his career has been building bridges between communities and worldviews: Christian and Muslim, Christian and secular, etc. Being from Croatia, I can only imagine Volf has a very agonizing sense of the disaster it is when a society comes apart at the seams due to divisions and factions (if you are too young to remember this well, Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia, a country which devolved into savagery and appalling crimes against humanity in the 1990s. I’m talking The Walking Dead – style violence.)
To give you the flavor a bit, one of his questions is ‘How should we go about realizing a vision for human flourishing in relation to other faiths and under the roof of a single state?’ While it would take more than one post to give a sense of his work in A Public Faith, some of his thoughts include:
‘a faith that does not seek to mend the world is a seriously malfunctioning faith.’
‘when it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others… and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so that all would learn how to lead their lives well.’
‘a vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate’.
‘Christ’s command in everything do to others as you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Christians… ought to embrace pluralism as a political project.’
Volf is interested ‘not on attenuating Christian convictions but on affirming them robustly and living them out joyously.’
Written by one of today’s highly respected academics, the book is still accessible and readable by non-specialists, and very much worth your time. I recommend it highly.