Book Review of Vincent J. Donovan’s “Christianity Rediscovered”

There are things we have learned from our culture’s place in history that will be disrupted, dismantled, even condemned by the gospel. Other parts of our culture and history will be purified and refined, and in these things we will realize God was always leading us to King Jesus even though we couldn’t have known it before the gospel.

For discussion this week our theology class read through the book Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J. Donovan. Donovan was a Catholic priest sent on missionary work to Tanzania in the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Christianity Rediscovered was published in 1978 to explain his methods as a Catholic missionary and he hoped it would affect the Roman Catholic Church in its post-Vatican II transitionary period.

Donovan’s missionary method explicitly left behind the work of the Roman Catholic Church up to his day. Rome had dedicated centuries to living among the peoples of Africa and had come to the point in the early 1950s where they were running hospitals and schools to show they cared for Africans in hopes that they could compassionately draw people into Christian faith. Donovan critiques the Roman methods because they had stopped overtly teaching the gospel to those outside the proximity of the mission complex. He decided he would go the Masai tribes with a convert to reach the tribes far from the mission hub. This book is Donovan’s memoirs concerning his time dedicated to this missionary work.

There are a couple of positive ruminations by Donovan that should be appreciated. For being a man who had little education in moving cross culturally his struggles from naïveté to hard experiences are valuable to witness in his beautiful narratives of life among the Masai people. The best of Donovan comes out in his critical thoughts on the place of the priest. He comes to the more organic and communal (similar to the Eastern Orthodox) perspective that the priest is a physical and visible manifestation of the unity of the community in relation to God and God’s presence with his people among the community as it worships in the liturgy, particularly in the Eucharist. The priest is not primarily a theologian, or preacher, or healer, or social worker, instead he is the expression of the community of faith and the Spirit in that local place. Connected to this priestly conversation he questions the place of the missionary. Interestingly, Donovan doesn’t believe a missionary can ever really be the priest of the people they are trying to reach, and that is because the missionary is not an organic manifestation of the community in that place.

A major conclusion to these definitions for priests and missionaries is that neither can be dedicated to allowing the gospel to be devolved or used for social activism in a culture or politics of a nation. Donovan sees a weakness in the dedication of the social gospel of the early twentieth century. The weakness is it hasn’t really changed the African peoples the work is serving. The social gospel was to bring the gospel through work but very few were excepting the gospel! There is a profound critique by Dononvan here on the contemporary practices of many churches who are trying to use social justice work as an implicit way to woo non-Christians into the faith.

There a number of issues I had with Donovan’s thesis, but I will limit myself to expounding here on only two of them. The first issue was his belief that the gospel is something that can be stripped of any cultural or historical meaning and presented to a new culture in a “pure”, un-interpreted way. Or as he says, he wants to elicit a “cultural response to a central, unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel.”[1] I don’t think this is possible. There are too many facets of study that teach us there is no way to separate anything we do or say from our enculturated, historical existence as humans. Whether it is philosophy’s explanation that in language a word only makes sense in relation to other words in a sentence. Or social theory’s identity development analysis that shows how individuals only gain a sense of self by relation to others.

More importantly, to understand the gospel there are elements of Jewish historical understanding that must be retained in our presentation to make sense of this good news. I encourage all pastors to read Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. Dr. McKnight shows how the gospel must be the culmination of the story of Israel in the story of Jesus as the long-awaited Davidic king sent by God. God has sent Jesus to forgive and purify the people in order to be faithful to the covenant promises made long before. This gospel is always rooted in the history of Israel as it culminates in the first century. If we teach the theological implications of the gospel or the benefits of salvation as the gospel we are forfeiting talking about the gospel itself, the person of King Jesus. The gospel is not a pristine jewel sullied by the cultural trappings of Jewish first century practices and beliefs. Instead, it is the very historical basis of King Jesus’ life that overturns and expands so many of those Jewish beliefs which reveals what the gospel means. Only by watching the continuity and disruption of the Jewish culture around the person of King Jesus can we understand the implications for his actions and teachings. And only after understanding this thoroughly Jewish gospel of King Jesus as a cultural reality can we witness how it is able to enter into another culture and let that receiving culture experience continuity with the gospel or find disruption by it.

Second, Donavan’s idea that the gospel proclaimed will simply, almost naturally begin to reform the culture and rework from the inside out. There is too much of participatory, faithful obedience as a part of Christian life in my understanding of Christianity to except this passive belief in salvation. We are to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling”.[2] We are to work to not give our bodies over to sexual immorality and other vices of sin.[3] We are to strive for the goal set before us in King Jesus then work is a part salvation’s empowerment.[4] In fact, we are given the empowerment of grace (the gift of participation in King Jesus’ resurrection and ascension) to live in the good works of King Jesus’ life revealed in him beforehand.[5] There can be no assumption in Christian communal life that simply talking about the historical and cultural King Jesus story will transform us. Transformation occurs by inviting the Spirit to reshape our life together into the shape of King Jesus life.[6] That historical and cultural story of King Jesus is relived in the body of his people,[7] the bodies of his followers,[8] and we truly become the body of Christ.[9] Christian life, then, is the (cultural and historical) gospel life story of King Jesus relived in our bodies in our context, allowing him by the Spirit to purify or disrupt our cultural place and historical time through us.

God has begun this work, we join him in it, but that does not mean we aren’t called to intentionally address our issues, both individually and as a community. But there is a strange line that appears when addressing the issues of sin in the surrounding culture. Donovan says it is not the job of those who preach the gospel to try to change the culture and Paul agrees to this.[10] But again, Christians cannot hear this as an encouragement to speak ambiguously about the transformation that is a part of joining the community of faith. The expectation of all Christians in every church is that the community is together conforming to the image of King Jesus.[11] We must let the gospel retain its contextual elements in the life of King Jesus and also submit to his teaching that those who would become his disciple’s must count the cost because he asks us to give up a lot to follow him.

there are things we have learned from our culture’s place in history that will be disrupted, dismantled, even condemned by the gospel and we must actively submit to giving those things up. Other parts of our culture and history will be purified and refined, and in these things we will realize God was always leading us to King Jesus even though we couldn’t have known it before the gospel. Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered is like all cultures who experience the coming of the gospel. It is a book with beauty which will stand the test of time, but other parts must be left behind since we have continued to learn a better way in the story of King Jesus.

 


[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th anniversary ed (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2003), 24.

[2] Phil. 2:12

[3] Rom. 6:5-14

[4] Heb. 12:1-2

[5] Eph. 2:8-10

[6] Phil. 2:1-13

[7] 1Pt. 2:21

[8] Gal. 3:20

[9] Eph. 1:19-23

[10] 1Cor. 5:12

[11] Rom. 8:28-30

Valentine’s Day Book Review of Larry Hurtado’s “Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?”

I must admit, Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. To me, it is only fitting that Christians both celebrate the beginning of Lent, the intentional time of embodied reflection leading to the last week of Jesus’ life, and the life culminating in martyrdom of our brother Saint Valentine. While there is a lot of speculation around the story of Valentinus, the core of the story is that a priest, likely in Rome, continued to marry Christians even against the edict of the Emperor to halt all weddings. When arrested for his crimes against the empire Valentinus was visited by Christians to care for him, many of them those whom he had wed, thereby encouraging him in the Christian faith that love conquerors the powers of this world until his execution. In the face of such persecution why would anyone choose to become a Christian?

Today’s celebration is a good bridge for me to review a book I recently read called Why Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? by Larry Hurtado. This book is similar to his larger one called Destroyer of the Gods that I reviewed a few weeks ago. While Destroyer focused on what made Christians distinctive from Greco-Roman and Jewish society, this monograph focuses on what people thought they were gaining by joining the Christian communities of faith. I call it a monograph because it is a small bound book with barely more than one hundred pages. In fact, it is a printed version of his Père Marquette Lecture in Theology at Marquette University in 2016.

Hurtado begins by showing Christianity as a social group that grew at exponential rates over a long period of time. He uses the research of Rodney Stark and other historians of religious social development to show how this is a nearly impossible venture for new religious movements. He even goes so far as to say, “Indeed, although historians are often loathe to use the term, we probably have to say it was unique. For there simply is no new religious group of the time that had the same growth sustained over such a long time. And, as specialists in the new religious movements have noted, it is the rare religious group that becomes trans-local, and even fewer that sustain their growth beyond the first few years or decades.”[1]

This rapid growth, which is so evident for us nearly some two millennia later, was clearly noticed as it created socio-religious waves in the Roman world. From the small riots against Paul, to the Expulsion of the Jews in A.D. 49 over the “Chrestos” controversy, to the effect on temple tourism in Ephesus mentioned by Pliny the Younger around A.D. 112 it is clear that Greco-Roman society saw Christians as a problem to be dealt with, and harshly. This decisive, but usually local pressure on Christians, continued on with martyrdoms of bishops and apologists for centuries. Hurtado lays out the evidence that early Christians lived in a world where judicial and political action could easily be turned against them. More than that, the constant social ostracism Christians brought on themselves by their distinctive rejection of the gods, and lack of participation in common social behaviors linked to the gods, left Christians in a constant position to be harassed socially and politically if the population of an area turned against them.

So what could possibly have been the draw to this religion which cost so much socially and could produce so much suffering at the hands of the empire? Hurtado begins by showing what were not likely reasons people would have joined a Christian community but are often touted as reasons why Christianity succeeded in the face of such pressures.[2] First, people did not join the Christian faith because it had access to a more powerful or effective wonder-working source. Hurtado points out there were plenty of options available to people of the first few centuries that offered magical results for just about anything and everything, and it would not cost them their property or life before the magistrates or risk familial or communal ostracism being leveled against them. Second, people likely didn’t join because of a sense of familial bond between members. Hurtado speaks of how familial language was used by a number of voluntary associations for deeper, more meaningful interpersonal relationships. Third, people did not join the Christian communities to forward any cause of social justice. Again, there are examples of other social groups being able to provide mutual benefits to members without the high costs demanded of Christians, and more so the types of social justice behaviors done by Christians would not have been seen as justice or in a positive light by society. Lastly, people did not join Christianity to gain power. The higher the standing of the individual in Roman society the more there was to lose in being associated with Christians, and if one wanted to climb the social latter it would be best to keep one’s name from being marred by the moniker “Christian”. Without a doubt all of these elements were a part of Christian communal life, and it is possible that Christians worked harder than other groups at providing these social benefits precisely on account of community members being ostracized from other parts of society. But alone, these are not strong enough reasons to make sense of the exponential growth of Christianity in the face of the persecutions found in the first three centuries.

Hurtado ends his book ruminating on what could have been the actual benefits in the Christian faith that would draw so many to be faithful despite the high cost politically and socially. Turning to Paul’s words in Philippians and Galatians, Hurtado points out Paul’s concession to the cost of giving up his former status for what he considers the benefits of interacting with God in Jesus. This is a heavily experiential reasoning in the present leading to a future hope of further interaction with God based on Jesus’ resurrection being extended to Christians. Hurtado then looks at Justin Martyr’s reasoning that the Christian communities’ life together and philosophical coherence led him to accept the faith, [3] and he comes to the conclusion that “what most readily distinguished early Christianity were certain beliefs or teachings.”[4] It was not simply the beliefs or the practices of Christians that seems to have drawn so many in the first few centuries to the Christian faith despite the political or social costs. Instead, it was the Christians’ blend of particular beliefs being the distinctive reasoning for pursuing certain practices in particular ways that set these communities in continuity with their Jewish roots, but at the same time gave them a distinct identity separate from both Jewish and Greco-Roman communities.

Lastly, Hurtado looks at two particular teachings of the early Christians that would have possibly been seen as alluring enough to risk the costs of joining this new, burgeoning faith. First, Hurtado posits that the idea of a loving transcendent God was something that was wholly unintelligible to Greco-Roman society. By teaching the loving and faithful character of God in continuity with the teachings of the Creational God of Israel, Christians emphasized the inclusive posture of this all-powerful God as revealed and acted out in the person of King Jesus. And second, the idea of eternal embodied life offered to anyone who would give their allegiance to King Jesus. The resurrection was a novel idea in the era and something hard for Greco-Romans to accept from an intellectual perspective. “Certainly, the Christian belief in the resurrection was in that period ‘the most spectacular religious doctrine regarding the body,’ and among Greeks and Romans ‘this was an unthinkable idea.’”[5] Hurtado explains that eternal life does not seem to be something the general population really look for and was more of a philosopher’s inquiry. But Christian teaching on the resurrection likely generated a desire to participate in the eternal life of this loving God.

On a beautifully merged day of celebrating Saint Valentinus’ faithfulness and somber enactment of Ash Wednesday’s reflection on faithfulness for Lent, Larry Hurtado’s book Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? is a stimulating and devotional read. Why would anyone then, when martyrdom was so public, the political response unstable and harsh, and the social costs so high, choose to associate with this faith? Why would anyone now give allegiance to the Christian faith when so much of contemporary culture will ostracize Christians for living the faith, and when the person must give up so many pleasures or modern rights to obey King Jesus? Hurtado answers that “early Christian allegiance was not solely acceptance of a set of beliefs intellectually considered, but involved also the affective and inter-personal impact of those beliefs.” And I would mimic such a truth for our contemporary world as well. Christianity is a set of beliefs that must be communally embodied and experienced for our allegiance to King Jesus to become complete in the Christian. And only this embodiment by the power of the Spirit will sustain us to suffer in this increasingly hostile environment toward the resurrection which is the hope of the Christian faith. May we reflect on those who have gone before us on this Valentine’s and Ash Wednesday as we ask ourselves, “Why on earth are we Christians in the 21st century?”

 


[1] Larry W. Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?, The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology 2016 (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2016), 45.

[2] Hurtado, 110–14.

[3] Hurtado, 115–20.

[4] Hurtado, 122.

[5] Hurtado, 128.

Atonement and the Stone-Campbell churches

This last week our class focused on inspecting the atonement theories we grew up with and then how those theories effect our ministries today. Since all of us have grown up in the United States in the last half of the twentieth it was not a shock that everyone had the primary theory of penal substitutionary atonement as central to their understanding of the cross. For some of us, as we went to some form religious undergraduate work, the idea of King Jesus’ victory over the demonic power and authorities has become more pronounced. And for a smaller number, the concept of theosis, or divination, has begun to play an important role in our understanding of God’s atoning work. I was surprised how often a singular teaching on atonement was stressed for many who had been raised in a local church. As I thought back on my childhood in my home church I began to recognize some distinctive characteristics about atonement in my own context of the Stone-Campbell churches I’ve come to appreciate.

First and foremost, the primacy of studying the Scriptures meant every one of the theories I have studied in this class was something I recognized. While we never identified 1st John 3:8 as a Christus Victor text, we certainly believed that King Jesus had triumphed over the demonic powers of Satan in this world. While we never called Galatians 3:13 a penal substitution text, we believed King Jesus took our place of punishment under the curse of sin and made us right with God. There could be other examples, but the point is that in our church’s dedication to the study of the Scriptures we simply accepted the text was telling us the truth no matter how many different metaphors the text used. While I don’t remember even the word “atonement” being used in my growing up years, we accepted that the cross was a multifaceted reality that had to be expressed in multiple ways for us to even begin to understand the work God had done through and in King Jesus for us.

The second thing I noticed was how the Stone-Campbell dedication to the sacraments of baptism and communion had the effect of rooting our understanding of salvation into community, history, and the physical world. While there was no doubt we wanted to go to heaven, especially when there were those suffering in sickness or heartache among us, there was a dedication to recognizing that King Jesus was ruling over this physical world and the outcome would be for the people of God to resurrect together to be with our King and God for eternity. This focus toward the world was often, sadly, warped into dispensationalism where God was acting in the world through end times prophecies and political action, such as elections and wars. But still, there was a “creational earthiness” as I grew up that challenged the evangelical escapism of heaven so common in American Christian culture that I can only attribute to the redemption of our bodies with and through the physical sacraments.

Lastly, the Stone-Campbell churches have always stressed obedience to King Jesus as the highest form of holiness. While some traditions of Christianity stress dedication to the liturgy or the importance of existential “Spirit” experiences, our churches have always held to the study of the Scriptures for purpose of learning to obey King Jesus. Comedic in its own way, the churches can easily fall into strange mixture of anti-intellectual and Gnosticism. They see knowledge of the Scriptures as bringing the person closer to God (“The more you know, the higher you go!” and proof texting in the worst ways) but they are also weary of academia as they wisely sense education is used by many to subvert the call to faithful, holy life.

The Stone-Campbell churches’ Scriptural saturation, sacramental “earthiness”, and stress on faithful obedience to the life of the people of God as revealed through King Jesus create an understanding and expectation for atonement to be something participated in by Christians rather than simply done on behalf of Christians. The cross forms a people, a kingdom, and the churches themselves. The atonement is seen as the work of King Jesus that results in our lives being able to express his presence in our lives. While there’s plenty of tweaks that need to be made in the area of theological language and cohesive teaching, these will only add a depth to the wide heritage of faithful participation in the atonement completed in the body of King Jesus on the cross and then poured in his kingdom-churches, his body in the world.

This idea of atonement deeply shaped my own teaching and ministry. My whole teaching career in ministry I’ve stressed participation with King Jesus, the presence of the Spirit, and graciousness in the constant call for obedience to the faith. While in undergraduate studies the Spirit gave me the gift of leading an intentional community of faith as one of my ministries. I can only describe this period of my life as a veritable Garden of Eden. There were plenty of challenges over the seven years of our community’s life, but the presence of the Spirit through our communal study of the Scriptures, the partaking of the sacraments, and the constant striving to obey King Jesus in life together created something that I cannot really begin to describe. What I can say is that every family and person connected to that community was fundamentally reshaped to become more like King Jesus than they were before. The Spirit has worked through our lives in amazing ways that simply would not have been possible if we did not live that communal adventure together, an adventure highly impacted and shaped by my own inheritance provided by my life in the Stone-Campbell churches. I would not say I grew up learning an atonement “theology”, rather I would say I grew up with an atonement way of life, and for that I’m grateful.

Book Review of Michael Gorman’s “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant”

One of the atonement books I was assigned this quarter was the book The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant by Michael Gorman. This was a fantastic read. Gorman saw that many of the atonement theories offered, especially since the Reformation, are both too mechanistic in focus and/or myopic in scope. He seeks in this book to offer a comprehensive and fundamental layer of atonement understanding that will allow all of the theories to have space to interact and find meaning in relation to one another rather than demand a singular allegiance. Gorman calls this “new” method or theory of the atonement a “new covenant” approach.

Gorman uses the first three chapters of his book to lay out that the cross created a new covenant people of God, the primary aim of God’s promises in the Old Testament. He first shows how the New Testament’s claims the followers of King Jesus are liberated and reshaped as the covenant people, who are now rightly in relation to God and one another, by means of the cross. He then shows how these experiences of salvific liberation and unity are fulfillments of the covenant promises in the Old Testament. By showing these new covenant promises as fulfilled through the atonement of the cross Gorman proposes that the current options of atonement theories are inadequate, especially when they try to explain all aspects of salvation.

The next few chapters are dedicated to understanding the new covenant atonement as an atonement that is participated in and performed. For Gorman, since “the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross is to create a people of the covenant”, then “[t]he cross… must be understood not only not only as the source but also as the shape of salvation.”[1] Because of this the new covenant community takes on three particular ways of practicing the atonement: cruciform faithfulness, cruciform love, and cruciform peace. Each of these practices are imitations of God in and through King Jesus that allows for actual participation within the life of God through the Spirit. Cruciform faithfulness offers a way of life that manifests hope. This faithfulness allows sufferings to be redeemed in God’s salvation since his faithful presence with the new covenant people assures Christians of the promise of resurrection found in King Jesus. Cruciform love takes the faithfulness that is willing to suffer for God and extends it to those with whom God himself suffered. Since the new covenant atonement is for a whole people born out of the broken world then in order to practice the love of the atonement Christians must be willing to faithfully suffer for others too. Lastly, cruciform peace offers a way of life. This life, faithful to the imitation and participation in the sufferings of King Jesus, is for the world by inviting it into the new covenant people and is proactively seeking to redeem the relationships broken within Creation. Gorman calls this peacekeeping and peacemaking, which means seeking to manifest the realities of salvation which have been created in the cross of King Jesus. Gorman does not believe salvation should be seen as something a person is able to simply benefit from, rather it is a fully encompassing (baptizing) participatory reality which will be manifest in the life of those who become a part of God’s covenant people. In this way it connects with Bonhoeffer’s teachings against “cheap grace”.

At the end of this book it becomes clear Gorman has undertaken a massive task. He seeks to shift the very foundation of all other atonement theories by offering them all a place and structure for language. This new environment for atonement theories allows those studying these theories to place them within a larger frame of reference, allowing the theories to play off one another and develop a larger picture (the new covenant people of God) rather than solve specific theological issues. Gorman believes, and in many ways excellently persuades, that “the New Testament writers are far less interested in the mechanics of atonement than they are the results of atonement.”[2] This is the gem of Gorman’s work in this book; the atonement is not simply something that God did in order to make salvation possible but it is the work in the cross that continues in and through the covenant people of God today in the Spirit. Atonement in a new covenant model offers ways of approaching the cross from all of the Scriptural and traditional theories, but more than that offers the very story of King Jesus as the paradigm through which the cross finds its meaning and continued purpose.

This, I believe, is what Gorman offers to those who teach in the churches. The atonement is something that should be taught from the vantage point of its salvific results rather than by its particular mechanics. While a teacher or preacher who is going through the epistle to the Hebrews will need to stress the sacrificial metaphors of the forgiveness of sins, the purpose of forgiveness, the creation of a forgiven people, is what should be stressed most strongly. In other words, the atonement is teleological, or in better theological terms, eschatological. The atonement is the “when and where” event in which the people of God and God are most fully made one—in King Jesus on the cross. While it may seem like an event in the past, the cross is the future of all things. The cross is atonement because it achieved the end which all Christians, the whole new covenant people of God, are participating in for all of eternity. Such a generalized theory of atonement leaves many specific things about salvation unanswered, but Gorman’s new covenant atonement theory is as wide as the Biblical story’s view of salvation. It is this story, culminated in the cross of King Jesus’ gospel, which is the atonement we offer to all the world.


 

[1] Michael J. Gorman, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not so) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 175, 213.

[2] Gorman, 210.

Explorations in Atonement: Theory Readings

This week our class had a number of readings that allowed the different theories of atonement to be presented by those who hold to each. I will be evaluating each of these representations and offering my appreciation and critique for each of the theories as I find them.

 

“The Atonement Debate” chapter in Across the Spectrum by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy:

Penal Substitution

  • Negative: I am not convinced that Jesus’ death was needed to solve God’s issues concerning holiness. If Jesus is divine then he could not have “become sin” for us in this model of atonement. The incarnation works against this view’s dogged assumption that God cannot put up with sin. It would seem God could not put up with sin ravaging Creation and therefore was dealing with the sin issues in Creation by willfully dealing with sin in the body of King Jesus.
  • Negative: The critique of Wright on the common usage of this model still stands. It is far to focused on individual benefits rather than the communal reality brought into existence through the cross. Furthermore, that individuals benefit is usually the escapist hope of not suffering in Hell for eternity and rather living eternally in the pleasures of heaven. The Cartesian “soul” spirituality aside, this fear of suffering and hope in pleasure usurps the reality of the cross and condemns this popular view as feeding into, and possibly born out of, a cultural obsession with pleasure and happiness as the ultimate good of life.
  • Positive: I still agree that King Jesus was giving himself as a sacrifice on our behalf so that the punishment of sin would not fall on those who find life through and in him. In as much as punishment is still being removed and the king is representatively protecting his kingdom then there is some merit elements of penal substitution.

 

Christus Victor

  • Negative: The idea that salvation is secondary to the cosmic battle God is having against Satan does not seem to be compelling to me. This could easily be reworked to be understood as through salvation for humanity God overcomes Satan. This would make sense of King Jesus’ statement that when his disciples went out and participated in his ministry of exorcism he saw Satan fall from heaven (Lk. 10:17-20).
  • Positive: This view locates salvation as manifest first for and through humanity, but not only about humanity. The focus of salvation is the redemption of all things, Creation itself, and humanity is called to participate in this salvific reality.
  • Postive: Christus Victor locates atonement, and the salvation that pours forth both in humanity and into the whole cosmos, within the historical realities of the story of God in relation to Israel. The theological implications of atonement and salvation only find their sense and power within the manifested history of Israel that culminates in the long awaited coming of the Davidic King, Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Moral Government

  • Negative: The focus of this atonement theory is on form of outcome that God desires, a holy people. The problem is that the form of holiness revealed in King Jesus is not enough to empower or reshape the realities of humanity lost in sin and death. If the law taught Israel anything it was that they were not able to live up to the standard of holiness as the people of God, even with the gracious forgiveness of God continually offered in the sacrificial system. The cross must actually have effect and cannot simply be revelatory in order to be the cross which brings salvation for the kingdom of God. Furthermore, what it the point of the cross if propitiating God’s anger against sin is not for forgiveness? Saying King Jesus died to show God is seriously angry about sin does not seem to actually deal with sin.
  • Positive: This theory does place a high value on learning to live in the way King Jesus revealed by the example of his own life. King Jesus is the truly human one who makes it possible to live in relation to God eternally and if we wish to participate in that reality then we are to live as he lived in this world (1st John makes this pretty clear I think).

 

“Redemption and fall” by Trevor Hart, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (1997)

  • Good Warnings: First, not all atonement metaphors seem to be given equal weight in the New Testament. Something is to be learned from each but the amount of emphasis each metaphor deserves should be varied and scrutinized.
  • Quote: “Whenever the story which the church tells appears to dovetail neatly and without wrinkles with the stories which human beings like to tell about themselves and their destiny, it is likely that the church is cutting the cloth of the gospel to fit the pattern laid down by the Zeitgeist rather than the heilige Geist.” p. 191
  • Quote: “What the metaphors and models all have in common, if they are faithful developments or translations of the apostolic tradition, is a specific focus in history; namely, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They do not drift freely across the plains of history as universal truths of reason, or recurrent religious myths in which the global hopes and aspirations of humankind are expressed. They are rooted here, in the awkward particulates of God’s dealings with actual men and women, inseparable from the specificities of time and place to which the Christian scriptures bear witness, although transcendent of these in their significance. There, indeed, is the rub for many whose sensitives are finely tuned to the wavelengths of modernity with its historical consciousness and relativistic outlook. God, the Christian gospel insists, has acted decisively for our salvation here rather than elsewhere. It is in the personal particularities of the story of Jesus, a historically and culturally remote figure for most of the human race, that our own personal stories collide with God’s story, that they are somehow take up into his story and transformed. Here particularity and universality refuse to be prised apart.” pp. 192-193
  • Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory: Hart skillfully explains Anselm’s theory as God fulfilling through the incarnation the lacking of human duty and faithfulness due to God because of willingness to sin. Only the fullness of divinity enfleshed is able to properly fulfill humanity before and toward the Creator. I would easily call this a form of representative substitution on account of the representative nature of the incarnation for all of humanity and also because King Jesus is willing to suffer in any way to fulfill the obedience of humanity towards God. As Hart explains, God’s anger is not the driving motivation for God’s satisfaction though punishment is inevitable for humanity on account of sin. God makes atonement through King Jesus precisely because there is punishment for sin and he loves us thereby making a way to God when humanity could not.
  • Modern Enlightenment’s Atonement: Hart explains that in the midst of the Enlightenment’s modern developments Anselm’s Satisfaction theory forged through penal-substitution’s individualistic assumptions led to an idea that King Jesus came to reveal and unleash the latent good and potential within humanity. There was no inherent evil within humanity that needed to be removed by the atonement as much as sin needed to be removed so it was no longer as an impediment to the human condition. The individual and subjective influence of penal substitution created the expectation of an existential experience. This experience of “meeting God” would then allow the person to move “beyond” sin for them to fulfill all that King Jesus intends for the person. This idea of individual fulfillment and self-fulfillment as God’s intent on the cross unmoors atonement from the historical context of the gospel and makes it a Platonic “spiritual” salvation that is nearer to religious therapy than historic Christian theology. Sadly, the only collective thought available within this theory is the cultural notion that humanity is progressing getting better, which is bolstered by the idea that in the cross God is moving humanity towards its truly realized end.

 

“The Nonviolent Atonenment” by J. Denny Weaver, Stricken by God (ed. Hardin, 2007)

  • Positive: This last reading was interesting. The high level of historical focus, meaning Weaver’s dedication to allowing the context of texts give meaning for theology rather than later Christian developments, is refreshing. But sadly, nothing I liked about this essay had anything to do with the proposed atonement theory of a “narrative Christus Victor”. Weaver also was intellectually honest throughout. He is open that if God intended for Jesus to go to the cross then his method is not an option for atonement.
  • Negative: Weaver is so dedicated to his a priori interpretation of Jesus as God cannot “touch” violence in any capacity that much of the New Testament becomes unintelligible. Paul’s insistence on the cross as God’s wisdom and power, the writer of Hebrew’s insistence on forgiveness through sacrifice by God’s appointment, James’ belief that suffering is redeemed (coherent only by interpretation in light of the cross), even Jesus’ own words when he reveals why the incarnation takes place (John 12:23-28) makes no sense if we follow Weaver’s presuppositions.
  • Negative: The most damning element of Weaver’s atonement theory is his openness that for him, and his theory, the cross is not central but rather a byproduct: “The victory of the reign of God over the forces of evil, symboliszed by Rome that killed Jesus, occurs through resurrection.” “The saving element of narrative Christus Victor is resurrection…” “I have emphasized resurrection as the saving event, the sine qua non of this narrative.” “If Jesus’ mission was the life-bringing, life-affirming mission of witnessing to the reign of God as I proposed, then I cannot say that his death was intrinsically necessary to the divine will.”[1]
  • Negative: Because of this dogged allegiance to a self-imposed hermeneutic Weaver makes a philosophical and theological claim I find hard to get past. In his Christus Victor scope of focus he sees the powers and authorities as demonic forces with actual power, and this I do not begrudge him. But he believes it is within their power to destroy the very existence of humans through death as their weapon.[2] In such a statement there are a number of philosophical problems but I would like to focus on the inevitable conclusion that there exists a power in reality that is able to rival God’s creative and sustaining work. To believe that something has the power or right to extinguish existence is to counter God’s power and work effectively. In reality there is another god, one of evil and chaos that is able to destroy our very life. But such a power is only attributed to the Creator God of Israel by none other than King Jesus (Mt. 10:28). Weaver must push this demoted concept of God because if God were the ultimate divine of Christian tradition it would mean all things, even evil only exists by his gracious sustaining and even their behaviors are allowed within God’s intent and purposes. Weaver believes if God allows for the will of God to be accomplished by evil then God is morally bankrupt and therefore restricts himself from an orthodox view of God’s reality.[3]

 


 

[1] J. Denny Weaver, “The Nonviolent Atonement: Human Violence, Discipleship and God,” in Stricken by God? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 330, 340, 347, 351–52.

[2] Weaver, 330.

[3] Weaver, 342–43.

Book Review of N.T. Wright’s “The Day the Revolution Began”

The conversation of atonement is looming large in my graduate studies, both as a part of my current theology class and as a major portion of my thesis. This conversation inevitably meant I had to read one of the most recent books on the topic written by one of the most prominent New Testament scholars, The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright. I bought this book when I went to see Dr. Wright speak on the subject at Wheaton College and was intrigued by a number of the themes he presented in his lecture that seemed like a challenge both to the traditional Protestant understanding of atonement and the Platonizing elements (at least in his understanding) of much modern conversation on atonement. While there is much to be discussed in this book there are only a few points I would like to land on in this review.

First, Wright focuses intently on the Platonizing elements he believes are everywhere in modern concepts of the atonement, or maybe more implicitly, he is critiquing centuries of theological conversation that veered far off from anything the Scriptures were historically referencing. The cultural context of tribalism in the USA has led many academic Christians to deeply explore the teachings of Christian Tradition(s), and many (influenced particularly by David Bentley Hart) are finding Platonism to be a philosophical construct which allows them to understand their faith and reality. I too have many reservations about Platonic elements of philosophy being used as ways of constructing contemporary theology, but I believe there should be more of an effort to distinguish Ancient Platonic thought, Christian Platonism (particularly as expressed by Maximus the Confessor), and what I would call ‘Modern Platonism’ in order to refer to Enlightenment-era philosophy that has embedded (though often wrongly applied) Platonic elements. Wright is primarily attacking the last of these three as he criticizes the common understanding of penal substitution as spiritualized and individualized understanding of Reformed atonement theory.[1] These are valid critiques of penal substitutionary atonement on account that it constructs an idea that King Jesus died with specific intent for each individual (the phrase “He was thinking of me on the cross” or “He would have went to the cross if even just for me” are good examples) rather than personally incorporating the individual into the work of God brought about in King Jesus. What’s more it seems King Jesus’ divine intent for my eternal fulfillment on the cross for “me” was to escape this world of pain and death to go to heaven rather than being empowered to follow him in his life of sacrificial, suffering love for others.

Second, Wright seeks an understanding of the atonement within the framework of Jesus’ own historical context and the first century Christian communities. This means understanding what the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures”, found in 1st Corinthians 15:3, means. Wright proposes Jesus’ death was framed, both by Jesus himself and his followers, as the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s covenantal expectations. He argues that for these covenantal promises to become fulfilled the exile must come to an end. And in order for the exile to come to an end the sins of the people must be forgiven. Wright sees the New Testament revealing Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, the long-awaited Davidic king, and the Son of Man from Daniel 7. This merging of Old Testament themes (Wright’s idea of “according to the Scriptures”) means Jesus is able to act as a substitution for Israel’s punishment of exile to bring it to an end (the Suffering Servant), act as representative to God in order to fulfill where Israel had failed in the past (the Davidic king), and act on behalf of God to establish the eternal, global kingdom (the Son of Man). This mixture of motifs allows King Jesus to remove the sin of the people, fulfill the mission of Israel to be faithful to God overthrowing the powers and idols which had enslaved them, and to open up the kingdom’s blessings to the nations as promised to Abraham. All of this happens as an act of love from God who is being faithful to enacting his covenantal promises to Israel (and the nations through her).

Lastly, there is only one area of this book that I did not follow Wright. The particular section was where he fights the idea that atonement does not need to have a concept of punishment involved. By this he means, in his model of atonement Jesus does not need to be sent to placate the anger of God towards humanity.[2] This central argument had two contentions I found particularly weak. A) The Day of Atonement ritual did not actually kill the goat, which represented the people, upon whose head the sins of the people were placed. B) Sin offerings were not about punishment from God being averted, rather it was about purification of accidental sins of the people. It is easy enough to find dissatisfaction in these points from within Wright’s own method of New Testament investigation since the writer of Hebrews merges both of these two sacrificial themes together (Heb. 13:10-13). Leviticus 16 instructs that on the Day of Atonement the bodies sacrificed for sin, which removed or cleansed the people, were all presented for bodily destruction outside of the camp/city. Leviticus 16 then immediately moves to a long list of punishments for breaking the covenant willfully, and the writer of Hebrews seems to be warning against a punishment for disobeying the gospel message in chapter 4. Yet, as I am writing a mini-commentary of disapproval in the margins of this section, Wright then turns. He makes clear that, yes, Jesus as (representative) King and (substitutionary) Suffering Servant does mean punishment against the people of Israel is being removed in the cross. He simply wants to make it clear the punishment is not a future threat of hell that is being removed but the punishment of exile.[3]

But this is a further strangeness in Wright’s aversion to punishment in the cross. He is insistent that wrath is still yet to come so wrath could not have fallen on King Jesus at the cross.[4] Again, I believe Wright’s own method works against him here. Conceptually, the blood of the Passover lamb kept away death in the place of the firstborn sons of Israel thereby purchasing the life of the firstborns for God’s special use. Later, God set the Levites in the place of the firstborns. This interaction of sacrifice and the death of sons is deeply embedded into the Genesis story beginning with the skins God puts on Adam and Eve rather than them dying the very day they ate of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:17). While death was staved off for a time sin convinced one of their sons to kill the other beginning a whole set of recapitulations of animals “covering” sons in sin and death (Isaac on Moriah, Jacob’s deception of Isaac, the patriarchs’ cover up with Joseph’s coat, etc). All of that to say, I believe this idea of death/punishment in the sacrifice of the cross would be worked out by Wright’s own method if he more fully incorporated the Old Testament interactions of sonship and sacrifice. This would easily be enveloped into the three themes Wright offers of King Jesus, most naturally into the representative form of the Davidic King but possibly even in the priesthood theme of the Suffering Servant. If this does make a way for punishment, including the future wrath the whole world will experience, to be satisfied in the cross it means that when King Jesus ended the exile it was the end of any condemnation for the people of God in this age and the next.

Overall, this book is a great read. Other than the handful of pages referenced above about the aversion to punishment in a specific way, I believe this book is a necessary corrective for many who think about the impact and power of the cross in Christian theology. Theology must be more rooted in the actual language of the Bible and the time of King Jesus himself. As nice and pretty as some theological conversations of later times appear, they are often far from the meanings of the Scriptures they employ. As Wright implores, Christians must understand God’s giving of King Jesus as a loving act for our good, not with the specific intend of stopping his anger at individuals per se, but rather the ending of the sins of Israel so that the covenant blessings might be fulfilled. While sin, anger, punishment, and death are dealt with it is through the ending of the exile by God forgiving the sins of the people in King Jesus. Wright compellingly explains how the end of this new exile is more than just about certain political freedoms (such as overthrowing Rome) but it is more about robbing the demonic rulers and idols, which have entrapped all of Creation and enslaved humanity, of any power to rule. King Jesus has liberated his people, humanity, and all of Creation from the rule of evil, sin, and death, thereby, fulfilling all things “according to the Scriptures”.


 

[1] N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 35–37.N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 35–37.

[2] Wright, 329–31.

[3] Wright, 337–38.

[4] Wright, 330.

Explorations in Atonement

This last week our class began to dive into atonement theory by looking at backgrounds and words. I have thought for the last year, before this class was known about, that I should do an open and public exploration of atonement theories and the theologies that undergird them. I have no personal preference for a specific atonement theory, if anything my background was about individualized penal substitution but my readings and studies have swung against that interpretation. I admit I’m at a point where I need to work though this subject, and these exploratory posts will be my format for doing so. My explorations will be my evaluation of historical settings of biblical texts, the texts themselves, historical reception of certain theories, the usage of those theories, an anthropological look at the place of atonement and sacrifice, and lastly, how useful are the metaphors for teaching in the churches.

This week will focus on understanding the Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds to atonement and sacrifice. Was there a theology within Israel as understood in Second Temple Judaism(s)? If so, what was this (common?) internal logic? How does it compare to Greco-Roman understandings of sacrifices? While this post will not go into exegetical detail about the New Testament it is necessary to look into if these strands of thought slightly to see if King Jesus’ or his followers’ language about atonement assume these cultural backgrounds.

Greco-Roman Sacrifices

The Greeks used sacrifice as a way to worship the gods in celebration. These celebrations were usually public and highly festive. These gifts of sacrifice sought to bring blessings from the gods for their particular city, more than seeking assuage the anger of the gods. The Roman cultic system was much more focused on maintaining peace between the gods and Rome, consequently elevating the appeasement of the gods to primacy. This peace was continually maintained by private and public enactment.[1] Those within the rule of Rome were expected, both culturally and politically, to participate in this worship of the gods in order maintain this blessed peace given to Rome.[2] In Hellenism, sacrifice focused more on the purification of those participating in the sacrificial ceremony. While the minority understanding of sacrifice, propitiation to appease the gods of any anger, became primary in Romanized sacrifice. Even still, a purification element remained within the sacrifice of propitiation.[3]

Old Testament Sacrifices

Israel’s sacrifices, in her gigantic and singular temple, were different from the Greco-Roman practices performed in their much more numerous and smaller temples. The Hebrew word for atonement (kpr) is primarily used in the cultic literature of the Old Testament to show how blood is used to expiate, remove the sins or guilt of the participants in the sacrificial ceremonies, rather than propitiate, remove the anger of God against the participants. Outside of the cultic writings, atonement (kpr) is used to substitute one thing for another, therefore righting or correcting something that has gone wrong. There are two particularly good examples of atonement. The first is seen in Moses putting his life in the place of the people who have sinned in Exodus 32:30. The second is Numbers 35:30-34 where the blood of the murderer is needed to atone for the murder. This atoning is not about stopping God from being angry but is to cleanse the ground of the pollution of murder.

The centrality of blood manipulation for expiatory atonement is located in the concept that blood itself is the life of creatures (Leviticus 17:11-12). The reverence for blood is because of the reverence for life as given by the Creator. Blood is not for common consumption because it is believed to have been created specifically for atonement. The issue of murder and ground pollution in Leviticus 17 makes, at least to me, a clear connection between sacrificial atonement theology in Israel and the Cain and Abel story. This might also be a foundation in the atonement concepts of the writer of Hebrews in his letter (12:24). The purpose of expiatory atonement was unquestionably to save the life of the participant in the sacrifices. By the first century the offerings which included a sacrifice had become associated with the concept of atonement, even the peace and burnt offerings, which were originally gifts to God and communal acts of presence with God. This would also seem to connect to the major confluence of atonement in all forms of sacrificial offerings referenced by the writer of Hebrews in his letter.[4]

E.P. Sanders stresses that Israel’s theology of sacrifice was not simply blood magic. The sacrifices alone did not atone for the participants or the people of God like a mechanism put into motion separate from the individuals involved. Sacrifice was the enactment of the participants devotion. If the atonement was to expiate and purify then the participant would need to give themselves to God through the act of sacrifice. While sacrifices allowed for communion and partnership with God, this was not the primary focus, the point was deliverance of the body and life of the participants from sufferings, pains, and death. The sacrifices also created a common identity for the people of God, especially those associated with the festivals. Further, sacrifices were used to bring gifts and prayers to God for the blessing of the participants’ family and nation, and even other nations, such as Rome.[5]

Atonement and Penal Substitution

One of the major fads I have overheard in atonement conversations is to reject penal substitution outright as a Reformation-created theory that does not deal with history of atonement, whether Jewish or Christian tradition. This is a substantial point to me, which if found true, would persuade me to disregard this theory. Often I hear the point articulated in this way: a) the Hebrew concept of atonement (kpr) does not include the propitiatory element of the Greek concept (hilosmos), b) God is angry at sin in humanity and to punish humans (or Creation) is arbitrary to the issue of overcoming evil, and c) God is non-violent love as revealed in the cross which means he would rather suffer himself from outside forces than punish others to bring all things into right relationship with himself.

Working back through these issues, Sanders shows Paul is well within Jewish theology to believe the people of God will be subjected to punishment in this world, and even in the one to come. This punishment was expected to be temporal, but could easily be conceived of as eternal if it did not lead to repentance before death.[6] The writer of Hebrews, again, exemplifies a Jewish theology by teaching Christians are disciplined for complicity with sinners and sin so that further punishment does not come against them (12:3-17). The writer goes on to explain King Jesus’ blood (sacrifice) makes the people of God holy and overcomes death (13:12, 20). Because of this I don’t find compelling the idea that God cannot punish just because he has revealed his love in King Jesus on the cross.

The second issue with this common caricature of penal substitution is the arbitrariness of God’s anger. Wright does a great job of showing how the New Testament’s Jewish theology lends itself to the reality that there is both substitution and punishment in the atonement.[7] Wright’s necessary corrective to popularly held penal substitution is that God is motivated to atone through King Jesus by love to rescue his covenant people, not anger. Wright believes God’s anger is justified against sin and therefore he does punish it, but this is not arbitrary. Idolatry, both in humanity turning toward Creation from the Creator and in Israel turning to other gods from Yahweh who liberated them in the Exodus, allowed humanity to become enslaved and corrupted by the demonic forces of Sin and Death. This enslavement, intensified in Israel’s oppressive Exile, was a  punishment for unfaithfulness to the covenant with God and in no way arbitrary. If these consequences were not arbitrary punishments then the atonement made through King Jesus’ cross is not arbitrary forgiveness.

This, to me, seems central to evaluating the penal substitution atonement theory. Was the central idea of the atonement about stopping God’s anger and punishment? Or was anger and punishment things that simply were dealt with as the people were purified from their sins? Again, the writer of Hebrews offers a good indication of an answer. His quick summary of God’s work in King Jesus in 1:3 as the “purification of sins” places the idea of expiation as central. He retains the concept of punishment for those who outside of the blood of King Jesus throughout the letter. Therefore, punishment is something that atonement does address, but it is addressed as the people are formed in the expiating blood of King Jesus’ holy obedience. There is no forgiveness without the expiation of blood (9:22), and this expiation results in the new covenant people being able to approach God without having to fear his judgement anymore (13:18-24).[8]

Lastly, Jewish theologies’ usage of “atoning expiation” (exilaskomai, a syntactical variant of hilosmos) for Hebrew atonement (kpr) reveals that Jewish theologies did not believe the effect of atonement was only on the participants. Atonement effected God as well. The Greek concept of atoning propitiation was that humans assuaged God, particularly his anger, by sacrifice. Jewish atonement saw atoning expiation as God’s act, whereby he forgave humans and overcame the expected punishments of his anger.[9] Jewish theology saw God as the initiator of atonement to purify humans by expiation and subsequently this circumvented the punishing consequences of sin and death. The main motivation for God to act was therefore love (hsd, covenant faithfulness) for his people, not satisfying his anger, but it cannot be assumed there was no element of propitiation within the expiation of God’s atonement in King Jesus.


 

[1] David E. Aune, “Religion, Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 917–26.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2016), 37–76.

[3] Friedrich Büchsel and Johannes Herrmann, “Hileos, Hilaskomai, Hilasmos, Hilasterion,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 310–11.

[4] This section is highly indebted to the following works, which should be mandatory reading for the subject of atonement. Büchsel and Herrmann, 302–10; R. E. Averbeck, “Sacrifices and Offerings,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 710–22.

[5] E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (London : Philadelphia: SCM Press ; Trinity Press International, 1992), 251–57.

[6] Sanders, 270–75.

[7] N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 287–88, 337–38.

[8] There is also the connection in 11:28 to the Passover and how blood of the lamb saved the lives of the firstborns of Israel from the Destroyer. Exodus 12:23 seems to show that God’s inaction, not covering the doors of the Egyptians, allows the destroyer to kill the firstborns of Egypt. It also seems to express the Destroyer’s action as (at least a part of) God’s own action, as if he himself is taking the lives of the Egyptian firstborns. A Jewish theology could be posited that the Yahweh’s sovereignty as the Creator means his inaction to stop the evil powers under his control means they enact his judgement and their restriction under his power is always a merciful gift.

[9] Büchsel and Herrmann, “Hileos, Hilaskomai, Hilasmos, Hilasterion,” 316–17.

Book Review of Larry Hurtado’s “Destroyer of the gods”

The week before classes I chose to read through a book on my shelf I’ve been waiting to have time for just to get the academic juices pumping again before the semester began. The book was Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness by Larry Hurtado. It has been a number of years since I had read Hurtado’s book How on earth did Jesus become a god? back in undergrad, but the enjoyment of that book prompted my excitement for this one. Destroyer of the gods did not disappoint me. The clear prose of the sections, the lack of literary or academic fluff, the rigorous notes for further readings, and the quality of the summaries on ancient social or religious practices were phenomenal.

The premise of the books lies in the reality that non-Christians, both Jews and “pagans”, deemed Christian belief and practice as dubious as best and societally dangerous at worst. Hurtado gives a number of examples of how Christianity was not something that was seen as a religion in the ancient context. These were beliefs that overrode ethnic ties to gods, nations or citizenships, and even common behavioral norms. The intent of Christians was to include people, any and all people, into a community of beliefs and practices that placed demands on those newly converted that would reshape what it meant for them to exist in ancient society.

Hurtado’s examples of this intentionally crafted counter-cultural behavior begins with the Christian emphasis on translocal, transethnic inclusivity as a part of what it means to be religiously affiliated with Christianity. Hurtado posits that there was no such idea as voluntary religious identity. A person’s religious identity was subsumed within their ethnic identity and more personally, the family ancestors. Beyond the expectation that a person worship their ancestral spirits or ethnic gods, there were expectations that a person would worship the gods of the locality in which they resided. Polytheism did not demand any form of exclusivity. Even Jews were caught in this perspective since it was their ethnicity that gave them the pass of being strangely against worshiping other gods than their own. Christians took their Jewish heritage and expanded it to into radical new territory, inviting any ethnicity to join but demanding they reject participation in any other form of religious practice or event. In such a way Christian created the distinctive idea of religious identity separate from ethnic or social identity.

The next major focus of Hurtado is on the bookish nature of Christianity. The early Christians were prolific compared the ancient people around them. Their works of literature and their religious letters were far larger than anything except the most celebrated ancient texts. Christians were dedicated to teaching one another through the written word as read in the communal meetings. Christians didn’t just distinguish themselves from groups in the ancient world by their content alone, they also separated themselves from the surrounding cultural and society by the form of their bookishness. They began to use the codex bookform in much higher frequency, in fact seeming to prefer this looked-down-upon bookform almost exclusively for the Scripture readings in the churches. As they focused on codex technology they also developed liturgical reading styles that were evident in the reading of the texts, such as abbreviations and emphases.

The last area of Christian distinctiveness Hurtado focuses on is the social behaviors of Christians. Christian groups put considerable effort into creating language and concepts that reshaped the behavioral life of the new convert. The particular areas of this is seen in the honor and dignity given to infants and children, a rejection of violence as entertainment, and strict sexual behavior, specifically expected of males. Pagan religion did not concern itself with the person’s ethical life but was focused on the rituals and practices expected to be adhered to because of traditions, ethnicity, and locality. Christian obsession with the lives of their participants was distinct and unusual.

My personal take away from this book is the unbelievable willingness for early Christians to purposefully craft a way of communal life that stood in direct opposition to the prevailing culture of the Greco-Roman world. They were radically inclusive in their invitation to any and all peoples, but at the same time this radical inclusivity was meant with a radically exclusivity in order to distinguish themselves from Jews who did not follow King Jesus and pagans. How might Christians in this contemporary period learn from the first few centuries how to be as clear about the boundaries of Christian identity, yet still lovingly offer to never withhold entrance into that communal identity?

I think particularly of the sexual issues plaguing American Christianity in the twenty-first century. Might Christians learn against to make unbelievably strict, and even “immoral” to the American society, demands on the sexual behavior of those who desire to participate in our communities of faith? Christians must again begin to craft purposefully insider language that will seem strange and distinct from those outside of the Christianity. The culture of America must become unpalatable for Christian identity to reside within, though we may live beside it in a way that condemns it by our own loving and holy behavior.

I easily recommend reading Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods for the education of the early churches found in it, but I highly encourage reading this for the conviction it brings about in the Christian reader. May we honor this tradition of inclusive exclusivity as essential to Christian identity. Even more than honor, may we begin to live it again.

The Links in Theology

This month, as classes started back up after the Christmas Break, my first class meeting was sabotaged by sickness. In lieu of our class we were sent a number of links to watch through in order and then to give our particular responses to them in an online forum. As a way of processing these pieces for consideration I am going to provide them here for anyone to watch through and read, and then I will provide my responses.

The links we were to process through:

  1. An article about the threat of Christian nationalism as represented by the construction of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
  2. A video assessing anti-intellectualism in the USA as anti-higher education or anti-seminary education in churches.
  3. The video of Oprah’s Golden Globes award.
  4. Not one, but two editorial responses to Oprah from the New York Times.
  5. An article about living a Christian life that is intentionally reflective on the Trinitarian life.
  6. A post on Dr. McKnight’s blog about a preacher confronted with his deep dislike of those who would be considered Republican-Conservative-Evangelical-Fundamentalist-etc.

My responses will be a bit more edited, polished, restated as it were. Since the forum is a much “closer” space with other students I trust to divulge a bit more personal information. Here, I just want to reproduce my more general points to the questions (which were reorganized by a fellow student for clarity).

 

Respond to the good and bad “soteriology” running through these pieces. 

I could respond to these pieces in nodding approval, as many undoubtedly will, but my agreement to slight portions in them gives them no moral merit to me. I come from the land of those who love the Creation Museum and the Museum of the Bible (heck, our church paid for tickets for people go to both exhibitions when they came only an hour away!). Movies and Hollywood mean nothing. Most towns don’t have a theater, and those few theaters only play the most entertaining movies in order to bring in as many people as possible, but people frequent a movie theater rarely. As an example, my hometown had a theater and a Drive-in. In fact, I lived only half a block away from it for a few years, but still our family only ever went to the movies maybe half-a-dozen times when I was growing up. The point being Hollywood, both the people and productions, are held to be of no significance to life. The meaninglessness of opinions or speeches from those connected to the entertainment industry cannot be overstated.

As my ten year reunion approaches this summer I have been reflecting on the life of many my age from the Ozarks. Of those who I grew up with only a few have left our hometown, and even fewer have left the region. Marriage is clearly a life flavor preference, but having children outside of it is much less. While there are a considerable number of single moms they are rarely outside of some relationship spurred on by their loneliness and allure of someone soothing their insecurities. Single mothers are never considered weak. In the ethos of the Ozarks they are strong, overcoming all odds to have a relatively good life. Everyone is just struggling to survive, to live. Life is the struggle to find meaning in some desired pleasure called “happiness”. So often this happiness, this necessity for life, is found in playing video games, smoking pot, getting drunk, sex, and creating fake family-units with live-in “partners” and “step” kids.

There is a deep contempt for those who would tell them how they ought to live or seem to know better since this message could challenge their life (pleasure) choices. The two structures that offer such advice in the Ozarks are churches and the welfare system, both frequently used for various reasons to make life palatable whether in dealing with suffering or poverty. As these structures seek to guide people they are hated for any demands. I point out this way of life because I believe it shows that the rural lands do not have an upper hand on offering salvation to society. But this doesn’t mean progressives in Hollywood or elsewhere are in a superior position to offer salvation to America either.

These pieces only reveal a growing religious fervor of moralism in those outside the rural lands who say in a faraway voice, “Isn’t it sad how stupid they are?” or “Surely Hollywood has said something of substance!” or “If you only understood more you would know God isn’t on your side.” If this is how I heard it (and I was always seen as a too educated liberal) then how meaningless are these ideas outside their circle of agreement in the cities or on the coasts? The anti-intellectualism of many in America is rooted, not in a dislike for education, but in the rejection of those who believe themselves educated. The self-deemed educated have allowed their own character to become so tarnished they’re unable to give honor and dignity to those they so easily deem uneducated.

Too many Christians in America continue to use churches as places to escape the reality of suffering and hardship through existential “Spirit” encounters or as echo chambers for political banter. The churches, on both sides of nearly any issue, see themselves as bastions of morality in an ocean of societal evil. These pieces do not speak of a positive moral or religious “awaking” in America because Hollywood/intellectuals/elite/liberals/progressives/etc. are all just playing into the same religio-political game that has ravaged the Right in America for decades—the delusion that those who seem more moral are the true Christians. My horrified awakening is that both sides believe good citizenship, nationalism on one side and codified/government-enforced societal acceptance on the other, is the ultimate expression of Christian faith in the American context. While I understand, and feel, the abhorrence to the claim that God is working through nationalism as displayed in the Museum of the Bible, I feel the same abhorrence to seeing spiritual significance given to a Hollywood award show for public displays of progressive Pharisee-ism.

By and large the idea of salvation as transformative and participatory does not exist for Christians in American, whether they are educated or not. Since both sides have accepted the premise that God unquestioningly accepts the person claiming to be a Christian and truly wants the person’s pleasure in life, transformation is reserved for others. Transformation is for someone else because God accepts me and desires what I believe is good. God will eventually transform them to become like me. The only salvation offered by American Christians is approval by my chosen religio-political group by believing and acting in society in certain ways because this group of opinionated religious people fighting in society is where God’s blessing rests. Truly, we are on right side of (eschatological) history.

How does this discussion challenge your own language for salvation/atonement?

There is no question in my mind and heart that the form of what people on both sides of the divide are saying is true; a person must choose to live within a socio-political reality that manifests the life of God. I do believe there is a correct “side” of eschatological history in which salvation has and is breaking into human perception. But when I talk about salvation manifesting in history it is only appropriated to the individual through the community of faith by discipleship. If creation, and its history, has been shaped by, in, and through the person of King Jesus then reality is fully embedded in the presence of the Spirit as manifested within and through his body. By King Jesus’ “body” I mean his historical incarnation and his continued presence as enfleshed by his kingdom in the Spirit. Christian life becomes an embodiment of the atonement found in King Jesus because Christians are formed to re-live his life of sacrificial love and obedience in our context, and in this a person actually participates in the very life of God.

How do our approaches to evangelism (and the underlying atonement theories) invite people ‘home’ to life with God, and his people in Christ?

I think the only way to “gospel” (evangelize) someone is to allow the Spirit to work through our bodies to comfort and serve others, especially in their sufferings. If King Jesus by the Spirit is truly embodied in the people of God as they go to the nations then humanity is interacting with God through Christians. Therefore, Christians are able to bring the presence of God into moments of desolation and offer light and hope in the darkness of daily life. As we prepare people for sufferings through teachings and relationships, when those sufferings appear we are able to redeem them as participation within King Jesus’ cross bringing about new life where death appears.

Those struggling and suffering in this life deeply fixate on pleasure because they believe it invests their life with meaning and purpose, at least subjectively. If they look too far outside their self-focused reasoning they feel and recognize the torrential chaos beyond their subjectivity, this is what most of humanity recoils. Christianity recognizes this fear as the fear of death. Christians, by being conduits of the life of God into Creation, are able to offer meaning and purpose to life without the need to dodge or deny suffering or death. Instead, Christians are able to disciple the nations to redeem Creation even by means of suffering and death, and in this the atonement of King Jesus lives on continually to redeem all things through his people.

How does the language you use to describe the ‘on-ramp’ to the Way shape how people view that Way…and him who is that Way, Truth, and Life?

Our language of salvation should be honest and clear that a person must give themselves wholly and continually to the process of transformation. This self-giving is not an isolated act but is done through a dedicated, faithful, and obedient life lived with the community. Our families, finances, behaviors, and beliefs must be shaped by the redemptive working of the Spirit through the community into the image of King Jesus. Salvation cannot be grasped by those content with the options the world offers and it requires daily dying to all commitments, identity, and relationships founded or based on concepts found in the world.

In such a salvation Jesus is cast as a King who has saved his kingdom from the death and sin of the world. He is eternally with his people by his empowering Spirit, transforming Christians and calling them to participate in his purification of all Creation. The way of Christian life is the manifesting of the atonement in the community of faith. The cross, therefore, becomes the way of life for Christians and in it Christians find that Jesus himself, as King leading his kingdom, is himself the life of God itself in us.

Successful Church Leadership

A couple of weeks ago our Mission-shaped Church class centered around leadership. The lecture focused on how, in Dr. Fitch’s understanding, that the post-Christendom leadership structure of the future for churches will not be hierarchical. The primary focus of critique is the Protestant megachurch model that morphed the typical pastor-ruled church of the 20th century into a CEO over a large congregational “corporation.”

There are a number of fair criticisms of the CEO model of ministry. The idea that ministers should be specialists in the various fields of ministry, such as pastoring, administration, youth, worship, etc. This emphasizes skillful pragmatism over the pastoral task of theological integration through discipleship. Next, the CEO model centralizes rule in the pastor through the concept of “vision casting.” The pastor as visionary creates a hegemonic top-down control of the church’s community life. Usually this feeds into the skill focused pragmatism that slavishly serves the vision.

While pragmatism and vision are not inherently anti-theological or anti-pastoral methods of leading a church, it is the actual practice of these churches, rather than the conceptual possibility, that I find concerning. A friend of mine who works at a nationally recognized megachurch told me a few weeks ago of a staff meeting where it was celebrated that the “communion time” of the services that week had been condensed down to one minute and thirty seconds. There was cheering, congratulations, and high-fives passed around to the “worship team.”

I don’t doubt the personal dedication of each of the ministry staff workers in that room to helping people understand God loves them and wants them to live a life after the teachings given to the people of God through Jesus. What I do doubt is the level of theological investment built into priorities that such a celebration of time management would indicate. The communal practices of the local church have been immensely diminished in many of these CEO visions to numerically draw attenders to weekend services within the consumerist culture of contemporary American culture.

Dr. Fitch’s response this CEO minister structure is to reject it. For him, leadership must be non-hierarchical rather than led by some visionary. At minimum, the leadership of a local church must be located in a plurality of leaders. This plurality of leadership should also practice, what Dr. Fitch calls, mutual submission. He bases the idea of mutual submission on Jesus’ teaching of “binding and loosening” from Matthew 18.

As I am part of a growing church movement, especially as the Stone-Campbell Movement continues to pump out mega churches, I worry about this concept of success. For a long time there has been an acknowledgment that something is wrong in megachurches on the level of discipleship. In my dedication to the movement that raised me, I actually have attended two of these megachurches for the last ten years. There are a number of things that larger churches can accomplish that smaller ones simply cannot seem to get off the ground (missions team development, leadership resourcing, large scale activism that cares for their local town or city, etc.). This is not to say that smaller churches cannot do these things, but if only 5% of your community participates in a larger church gives you more people to do some sort of work.

Likewise, smaller churches are able to develop relationships between congregants much easier, helping new people build connections and find a place to serve. This is clearly not true in all circumstances, especially if the church has become a social clique of core families over decades, still the smaller settings demand more force proximity based interactions. There are a number of larger churches who seek to provide forced interaction experiences so as to fill this gap.

At the root of the issue here for me simply this; What do we expect a leader to be developing? What is a “church” supposed to be? My answer is that a community of faith is a social body where followers of Jesus declare his kingship and live together in his presence through the Spirit to face a world through their faith. I call this in short having a common life. Common life is the way that a community of faith should live. This is what a person should be committing themselves to when they become a follower of Jesus—living under his rule and reign with his people.

The CEO concepts of leadership have reduced good church leadership to the idea of success. The only quantifiable success in ministry is the number of bodies you can process through the factory door. I deeply believe that learning to have an effective, “wide net” strategy for inviting non-Christians into the community of faith is a key practice of any church. Megachurches have done fantastic work in this area. What worries me is that they have lost the idea of common life because it requires lifelong pastoral care that large numbers naturally work against since ministry is a taxing self-sacrificing work from the start.

In the same way, I am worried for the smaller churches in the Stone-Campbell movement. Years of political activism have galvanized these churches into practices that naturally reject many non-Christians simply through their cultural behavior. While they have high levels of relationship between members there is very little intentional development of leadership or even discipleship. I grew up in a church where I studied the Bible five hours a week with other Christians. I loved it and it has made me the man I am today, but recitation of words out of a book is not enough to disciple a person in the community’s faith.

There is a beautiful opportunity in the Stone-Campbell movement. The future is going to be received not by demographically homogenous large churches or by small cognitively text saturated churches, but rather the future will be received by those churches who intentionally practice common life together in which Scriptural study and active invitation to the lost are a couple of key routine practices. Now, how we are going to get there together will take more time, thought, and conversation.