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.

“We must go through many hardships…” Really?

Acts 14: 22 Paul and Barnabas encouraged the believers to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.

I have often heard this verse discussed as if Paul meant that in order to get to heaven, we would have to endure hard many difficulties and trials in life, as if what Jesus did on the cross isn’t enough to provide the way for us to enter heaven when we die. (By the way, that’s outrageous heresy – as far back as the Apostles’ Creed Christians would decry that kind of thought, not to mention Paul’s epistles themselves). Some translations make it out explicitly like that: “We must suffer a lot to enter the kingdom of God” (Names of God translation,) or “We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom” (Contemporary English Version).

There’s an unspoken (but sometimes spoken) theology-of-the-masses in contemporary Christianity that it will be hard to be a Christian and it is set up that way to see if we are worthy, blah blah blah.

I think there’s some very bad, unhealthy theology in there. “We MUST go through MANY hardships” to simply come home to where we were made for? What kind of Father would that make God? Certainly not the one in the story of the Prodigal Son! That Father (whom Jesus clearly means to be seen as a metaphor for God Himself)  is much more loving than that – he doesn’t require the Son to go through all kinds of stuff once he has been accepted and forgiven! When people experience hardship, they may comfort themselves with this verse, but I think that creates a warped view of what kind of god God is. I think there is a much better way to understand this verse.

Take it like this:  to cause God’s kingdom to happen on earth (something Jesus talked continually about), it will take effort and difficulty to push through and cause change. It’s long, slow, sometimes difficult work – just like gardening or farming, both images Jesus used for the Kingdom often. Gardening is sometimes easy and natural processes are rolling; other times, if you are going to succeed, you need to put some real effort into it… not give up if it gets strenuous. Like giving birth, – some of it happens once things get going, and other parts require hard pushing through. To work for the flowering of the Kingdom on earth, the leaven working its way through the whole batch of dough, we will sometimes face resistance and even counter-attack by systems and unjust social constructs, not to mention the people and philosophies entrenched in them, reflective even of the real presence of evil. But the quintessential Christian methods of love, mercy, forgiveness, and prayer (to mention some of the biggies) are the tools we reach for in the patient, sometimes difficult, working for God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And we know that God works through these methods to bring about change and new life. (And, thank God, sometimes it isn’t terribly hard, and people embrace the Kingdom with joy).

“That’s Just A Feel Good Church”

On the way to a foreign embassy yesterday, I enjoyed six hours in the car with my 77 year old dad. Amidst all the family history and updates, we talked about a second cousin of mine.

It’s a sad story, a young man raised in tragic circumstances, removed from his family for years by Children’s Services, finally to be returned traumatized, a recluse, prone to uncontrollable rage, and possessing zero social skills. Nearby is a big non-denominational church who has reached out to this young man’s extended family.

His young uncle, who attends a traditional Pentecostal church that is big on shouting about sin, fire and brimstone, said disparagingly about the big church, “Oh, that’s just a feel-good church.”

And I said to my dad: that’s exactly what my young second-cousin needs. He needs a place where people will come around him, love him, make him feel worth and valued, draw him into community, a place where he will begin to feel the powerful virtue of goodness  – and a church where there are competent counseling professionals who can help this poor kid sort through all the things that have happened to him in life and experience some healing. I said to dad, he needs that A WHOLE LOT MORE than he needs to hear about his sins, God’s wrath, and hell.

I hope this finds you well.

The NT doesn’t support our Western doctrine of Original Sin

In Luke 5:31-32 (HCSB) – Jesus says “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It’s very clear here that Jesus considered some people in his generation to be in right standing with God already, before the atonement on the cross. The Book of Hebrews lists many, many heroes of faith who were righteous long before Jesus came. But the way most of us understand the idea of original sin is that everybody on the planet has some sort of cosmic evilness in them that makes God furious and the only way to get out of an eternity of hell is to be lucky enough to hear about Jesus and say the sinner’s prayer.  So, the point of Jesus’ coming is this: everyone in the world is born with a condition God is furious at, so he is sending everyone in the world to hell, (like punishing a kid for having Down’s Syndrome) and Jesus comes as the medicine so you can go to heaven.

It’s like we’ve changed stories. Because you would never read the Old Testament cover to cover and come away with that idea: that the point of the story is that God is sending everyone to hell due to original sin, unless they confess the Messiah, whereupon the can go to heaven.  You would never even remotely come away with that idea from reading the Old Testament. The storyline in the Old Testament is that Yahweh created the world and it is being despoiled by violence and idolatry and evil and God wants people to live rightly in His world. So it’s like we’ve switched storylines in between the Testaments.

So the question is, is there a change of story, or are we mis-reading our New Testaments? Logically, Jesus the Messiah came to solve the problem presented in the Old Testament: to put God’s world right. Much Protestant theology, however, acts as if Jesus came to solve the problem OF the Old Testament: as if the problem is the way people related to God in the Old Testament (the Law) which now has to be remedied (by grace).

While grace and the atonement are certainly central realities in the New Testament, I think we’ve gotten mixed up about the storyline. I will say it again: the Old Testament never remotely suggests that the central story of the world is that all humanity is sinful and going to hell and can only go to heaven if they accept the Messiah. No, the Messiah is coming to set the world right, including the people in it. This is a story about this world, not an insurance policy for lucky insiders regarding the afterlife.

This is Classic NT Wright !

If you have any doubt that some major theological themes need reworking in our time, read NT Wright’s Justification. It’s an incredibly enjoyable read, and well done. Here’s a classic bit of his writing:

“The theological equivalent of supposing that the sun goes round the earth is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation…. That the central question is, ‘What must I do to be saved?’

Now do not misunderstand me. Hold the angry or fearful reaction. Salvation is hugely important. Of course it is!  Knowing God for oneself, as opposed to merely knowing or thinking about him, is at the heart of Christian living. Discovering that God is gracious, rather than a distant bureaucrat or a dangerous tyrant, is the good news that constantly surprises and refreshes u. But we are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him. It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity. Sadly many people – many devout Christians! – have preached that way and lived that way…. It goes back to the high Middle Ages in the Western church… But a full reading of Scripture itself tells a different story.

God made humans for a purpose: not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with him, but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful order to the world.  And the closing scenes of Scripture, in the book of Revelation, are not about human beings going off to heaven to be in a close and intimate relationship with God, but about heaven coming to earth. The intimate relationship with God which is indeed promised and celebrated in that great scene of the New Jerusalem issues at once in an outflowing, a further healing activity, the river of the water of life flowing out from the city and the tree of life springing up, with leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

….we are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around. If the Reformation tradition had treated the Gospels as equally important to the Epistles, this mistake might never have happened.”

– Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (2009; InterVarsity Press) p. 23-24

Is the Bible’s Story What We Say It Is?

The way that the Bible’s story is often pitched in evangelicalism is that the point of life is that everyone has sinned, thus infuriating God and causing Him to send everyone to hell, and you have to ask Jesus to forgive you or you won’t go to heaven. So the point of life is actually afterlife, getting to heaven. Sometimes this story-line is expressed with an even more sinister tone:  a friend of mine the other day summed it up when asked, What’s the point of earth in this version: “just a testing place to see if God will let you into heaven.”

But I noticed some time ago that if you read the Old Testament you would never come away with this story line. Reading the Old Testament, the point of it all doesn’t come across that everyone is sinful and God will take you to heaven if you ask forgiveness. In the OT, the storyline goes more like this: life on earth is being ruined by violence, oppression and injustice. God wants people to live uprightly, the opposite of those things, and to follow Him and His ways for a good life here. Jesus, when asked, summed up the OT with “loving God” and “loving your neighbor.” The point is explicitly summed up in verses like Micah 6: 8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

This is a story about life on earth and how God wants it lived, and that the problem is the destruction of shalom here on earth. This is not a story about earth as a testing ground to see who makes it to heaven.

Consider the following books and ask yourself if their message is about making it to heaven: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy? Chronicles? Kings? The Psalms? Esther? Jonah?  The Prophets? Hmmmm.

As for after-life, in the Old Testament we get a comment about resurrection in Job, a two verse mention of the Great Judgment in Daniel, and a handful of verses in Psalms about escaping Sheol or dwelling with the Lord all my days.

The Old Testament seems to be about life on earth. But we talk like the New Testament is about life after earth. Why the switch of subjects? Is there really a switch? Or have we simply prioritized some texts, skipped over or misread others, and assumed things about phrases like ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ which are different than what Jesus actually meant? If we assume Jesus came as an answer to the problem presented in the Old Testament, why do the New Testament answers (as we typically discuss them) sound like they are about a different problem?  Some have suggested that we have gotten this point-of-life-is-escaping-hell-and-gaining-heaven from the soaking Christian theology got via passing through Greek philosophy. Perhaps we’ve developed a Christianity focused so much on afterlife that we’ve missed the point of much of the Bible.

Why N.T. Wright is the Most Important Theologian Alive Today

N.T. Wright, former Anglican bishop of Durham, England, is the leading New Testament scholar in the world. He has been at the front of historical Jesus research for a generation as well at the front of Paul scholarship during the same time. It isn’t every generation of Christians who gets A) a world-class Bible scholar who is also B) a passionate, evangelical follower of Jesus, C) a very skillful writer with wit and color,  and D) an extremely wise person who can remain gracious and Christlike in the midst of controversy. Many generations get people who are 2 or 3 of these things together, rarely all four. You know you are on your game when publishers come to you to ask you to write the 21st century version of C.S. Lewis’ works (Simply Christian as the Mere Christianity for the postmodern world). There are certain Christians whose life’s work affects our understanding of the Gospel for a generation, or even multiple centuries. Wright’s work falls at least into the first category.

Specializing in the literature of the first century, Wright counsels us to read the New Testament in light of how people were writing and talking during that same time period. What were their expectations? What did they mean by certain words? How did they understand the Old Testament? Without careful attention to such things, Wright reminds us we are likely to simply read our own assumptions and theological ideas into the text. Or read the ideas of our favorite Reformation theologian from 400-500  years ago into the text.

Wright’s scholarship – and its ramifications – concerning Jesus, Paul, the Kingdom of God, and what the Gospel is even about, are landmark, groundbreaking. Entire sections of Scripture, Wright contends, have been mistaken to be about one thing when they are really about another. The results are big. For example, if you think Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings are about the end of the world, you expect certain things, the kinds of things prophecy preachers love to talk about. And these theological assumptions have deep social-political real world results:  fast-tracking weapons to the Middle East makes sense in that worldview, you are contributing to fulfilling prophecy! (BTW Is it alarming to you that evangelical church attendance correlates in statistical studies with approving of the use of torture?) However, if you think Jesus’ words are about the destruction  of Jerusalem in 72 AD and they are NOT about the end of the world, a whole other future comes leaping out of the pages of Scripture, a future written about, but which has been skipped over and ignored, due to the way we interpreted Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings.

For those who have inherited a Christianity which has not been able to answer adequately certain kinds of questions, or gives answers that are largely unsatisfying, N.T. Wright might be a life saver. Among other things, he opens the door to a larger, grander Gospel than many people grew up with.