A fantastic new book

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 someone innocent, in this case 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.”the day the rev began pic

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.

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.

Mark 6 and N.T. Wright

I read commentaries and theology devotionally alongside Scripture, and one of the commentaries I enjoy are the popular “For Everyone” series by N.T. Wright.  Wright is regarded as one of (many of us would say the) world’s leading New Testament theologians; he has been at the front of both Historical Jesus research and Pauline theology for decades now, two fields he has contributed immensely, and sometimes controversially, to. Here are some of his thoughts on Mark 6, Jesus walking on the water and the disciples not getting the lesson of the loaves and fishes. In this spot he reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ words in That Hideous Strength; it is not that the world is natural and sometimes unnaturally invaded by the supernatural, rather that the world’s appointed master (humanity) has fallen, and been unable to wake the world and interact with it in certain ways we formerly had been. Recall Merlin’s words to Ransom “Let’s awaken the water and the wind and the earth and drive them out.” “No,” Ransom replies, “they have been asleep for far too long for us to do that…”

Here is the quote from Mark for Everyone:

“…we are invited to see something more mysterious by far: a dimension of our world which is normally hidden, which had indeed died, but which Jesus brings to new life. Mark is offering Jesus to our startled imagination as the world’s rightful king, long exiled, now returning. He is, in Paul’s language, the last Adam. From his time with the beasts in the wilderness (1.13), he is now striding the garden, putting things to rights.

Mark… is simply warning that to grasp all this will need more than suspension of disbelief, as though one were in the theatre for the evening. It will take a complete change of heart.   ….that is what (among other things) Jesus has come to bring… in our thinking, our imagining, our praying as well as in our bodily health  …we are invited to come, like the frantic crowds, and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, looking for salvation.”

Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 84). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

How “narrow is the door” ?

“Narrow is the door.” The way this verse was often used when I was a kid was that you better get serious about church attendance or you’re toast. This makes this verse essentially into an old call for works righteousness –  get better at your discipleship or you’ll get Left Behind! Sort of an unspoken slogan “My yoke is hard and my burden is heavy!” Alternatively, some have used this verse to indicate that if someone is born at the wrong time in the wrong place, (say southern Africa,  2nd century AD), they are on their way to hell, outside the range of God’s grace. They use it as a proof that no Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or animist will ever be saved. The New Calvinists like John MacArthur make it sound like if you don’t get all your doctrines straight (i.e., believe what they believe – their particular version of Calvinism) you’re lost. This of course means it turns out that your ability to get the answers right on a theology test is what saves you, not Jesus.

But look at the context. The chapter begins with Jesus talking about the impending doom of Jerusalem and his generation’s headlong rush into insurrection and war with the Romans.  Next he tells a story about a fig tree. In the OT, these kinds of parables are about Israel, not individuals. The assumption all around him is that as long as my birth certificate says “Jewish” I’m automatically in with God. Jesus, in challenging his generation’s assumptions about civil religion, nationalism, religious violence, and pedigree, is talking about genuine relationship with God rather than religio-ethnic superiority complexes. If N.T. Wright is correct, this whole chapter is about Israel and Jesus’ call for his generation to follow him down a different Way.

To make this into a restrictive idea that God’s grace is only for the super-achievers spiritually or some other narrow slice of humanity is to fly in the face the portrait of God and his Kingdom that Jesus offers us, not least Luke 13: 18-21 – the Kingdom is a mustard seed grown huge and a leaven working through the whole batch of dough –  the words immediately preceding the ‘narrow door’ comment! If God were interested in making it difficult (narrow) to earn your way into heaven, no need to send Jesus. We already had difficult.  

Somewhere in The Shack, Mack asks “does this mean all roads lead to you?” Jesus replies,
“not at all; most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”  In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tale, a man who worshipped a false god Tash kneels before Aslan expecting death. But Aslan says to him “The oaths you kept to Tash I count kept to me…” These modern day parables are images of a God burgeoning with love, seeking people wherever they are. The ways the narrow door comment are often treated picture a God who lays out a tiny escape hatch in a maze for those who can find it. Which picture of God is true?

I’m afraid that the way these words of Jesus are typically used, we get simply one more old picture of a tribal god who only has love for his favorites or the super-accomplishers, not the God who loves all the world and sends His Son to save it. Would you want to love a favorites-only god?  Or would you only serve him out of dire necessity?

How do you judge a denomination?

After two glorious weeks of doing something more important than thinking theology – deer hunting in the Pennsylvania mountains with every bit of my spare time – I am back. Here’s a thought: how do you judge, “size up,” or evaluate a denomination, church, tradition, or even other religion?

I get asked this all the time. Someone will say to me “what do you think about the _______ (fill in the blank) – Methodists? Mormons? River Brethren? Episcopalians? Catholics ? You get the idea. And that usually evokes something like the following musings.

How do you “judge” a group? Do you evaluate them by their official, published theology? Or do you evaluate them by what their current working theologians actually believe (which is often different than their published ‘official’ line on a subject. Those kinds of official changes take time).  Or do you evaluate them by what their top-tier leader(s) believe? Or, do you evaluate them by what the majority of their members believe? (This is often different than what their published theology says, what their theologians currently think, AND what their leaders say!) Alternately, do you drop all of those tests-for-orthodoxy, and come at it from a different approach – evaluate a group by the kind of Christians they produce? Churches, denominations, etc. often produce better Christians than their theology would logically lead to! Or, to put it another way, their theology may be wide of where yours is, but the quality of the Christians they develop is nevertheless fantastic.

A couple thoughts about this: contrary to what we would assume, poor theology doesn’t necessarily result in poor following of Jesus. It doesn’t necessarily result in low returns in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, humility and self-control.  Weird doctrines and strange practices don’t stop people from loving Jesus and living how he says. Said another way,  strange ideas are not able to keep the Spirit of  Jesus out of the room. And they can’t stop Jesus from working in someone’s life. This is axiomatic. Just as high prices do not actually mean high profits, poor theology doesn’t actually mean people follow Jesus poorly. Obviously by the existence of this blog, I am deeply interested in theology. However, we need to recognize that judging a group by its theology, at whatever level, does not give us a picture of something even more important: how its members follow Jesus, and how their hearts reflect the characteristics His Spirit develops in us.

N.T. Wright re: Jesus and “end times” Scriptures

Anglican N.T. Wright, the leading New Testament scholar alive today, asks What if… “you are sliding down a steep slope – say, on a toboggan, or on skis  – and suddenly realize you are heading for a sheer drop. You seem to be accelerating towards it, and the slope is too steep for you to check your speed, let alone to stop, turn round, and go back up again out of danger. What are you going to do? The answer may well be that there’s nothing you can do. You need to be rescued. You need, in fact, someone to stand in the way: someone who has managed to get a fixed foothold on the slope, and who will catch you, stop you, and help you to safety. And if you were lucky enough to see someone offering to do that, you’d have to steer towards them and be ready for the shock of a sudden stop. Better that than plunging over a cliff.

The key thing to realize, in reading the early chapters of Acts, is that Jesus himself had warned his fellow Jews that they were precisely in danger of accelerating towards a cliff. If you read Luke’s gospel straight through, you will notice how the warnings which Jesus gave seem to increase in quantity and volume all the way to chapters 19, 20 and 21, where he solemnly declares that if the nation as a whole, and the city of Jerusalem in particular, don’t stop their headlong flight into ruin, their enemies will come and destroy them. The warnings are very specific. Israel (so Jesus declares) has bought into a way of life which is directly opposite to what God wants: a way which ignores the plight of the poor, which embraces violence, which denies God’s call to his people to become the light of the world. Again and again Jesus warns, ‘If you don’t turn back, you’re heading for disaster’ (Luke 13.5). When he arrives in Jerusalem he bursts into tears as he describes, in a prophetic vision, a great military force laying siege to the city and leaving no stone on top of another. This will happen, he says, ‘because you didn’t know the way of peace’, and ‘because you didn’t realize that God was visiting you’ (Luke 19.41–44).”   (Wright, N.T. (2011-05-31). Acts for Everyone, Part One: Chapters 1-12 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 40-41). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.)

Notice a few things here, classic N.T. Wright, which have a serious effect on how we think of Scriptures often associated with “the end times.” First, according to Wright, these Scriptures AREN’T about the end-times. They are about a very concrete, specific situation facing Israel and Jerusalem, just like 400 years before as the prophets warned them of impending doom via the Babylonians. This time the doom is via the Romans. So a lot of the Gospel sayings of Jesus that TV prophecy preachers weave all around the Book of Revelation for their scary sermons of doom and Armageddon, are actually about something that happened over 1,900 years ago. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the war of 70-72 AD, Christian commentators for the next several centuries commented on these verses  Wright refers to by saying  ”Yep,  precisely as Jesus said would happen.” Viewing these Scriptures as about the 1st century (rather than the end of the world) is not a new idea with N.T. Wright – it has a long, long history in Christian interpretation – right back to the generations closest to the sayings themselves.

So does this have anything to do with us? Absolutely! Wright comments further on:

“to leave behind slavery and sin and to find the way to freedom and life. You need to allow Jesus himself to grasp hold of you, to save you from the consequences of the way you were going (‘forgiveness of sins’) and to give you new energy to go in the right way instead (‘the gift of the holy spirit’). To do all that is to ‘turn back’ from the way you were going, and to go in the other direction instead. That is what is meant by the word ‘repent’….. sharing in the new life of the baptized community, the life which has the stamp of Jesus upon it, the life which is defined in terms of turning away from the course you were on and embracing Jesus’ way instead. And, though circumstances change, we can see how the same message translates without difficulty to everyone in every society and at every moment in time. ‘The promise is for you, and for your children, and for everyone who is far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.’ That means all the rest of us.”

Thanks be to God.