Reflections on Resurrection 7 – Creation and Matter

Posted: November 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 7 – Creation and Matter

In order to grasp the Christian narrative of resurrection, I think it’s necessary to understand the larger narrative of creation and the nature of reality within which it’s embedded. While that’s a lengthy and complex topic in its own right, I’m going to explore a few facets in this post which I think are particularly important.

Matter is not eternal and creation was not something God accomplished by shaping or forming already existing material. Nor is reality marked by an eternal cycle as it is in some religions. In the Jewish and Christian narrative, God is said to have created ex nihilo, which is to say out of nothing. However, that idea itself has to be unpacked to be understood. As Christians, we begin by saying the only eternal is the uncreated God. The Father, the Son — begotten, not made, and the Holy Spirit proceeding eternally from the Father have always existed in a self-sufficient, perfect communion of love. God did not create because he lacked anything or needed anything. Creation, rather, is an overflow of love.

I began to understand that truth, when I heard someone (possibly Fr. Thomas Hopko) say that describing creation as ex nihilo is an incomplete statement. When we say that, we then have to ask: Where did the nothing come from? Think about that question for a minute. Let it fill you with its wonder. While it’s true that God fills and sustains everything, from the Christian perspective we would not say that God is everything. No, out of his overflow of love, God has made room — made space for nothing and time to order it — within which a creation that is truly other can be spoken and can grow. This is a great mystery, but creation is not merely an extension of God, but rather is free even as it is wholly filled and lovingly sustained moment by moment by God. While the Christian understanding is often described as panentheist (not to be confused with pantheist), I remember hearing N.T. Wright once say that a better term might be the-en-panist (God in all).

The only other perspective I know which can be described as panentheist is that of Brahman within Hinduism. But that’s a very different sort of perspective. I can’t possible summarize it in a paragraph, but it does hold that all that can be said to exist is Brahman, even as Brahman is also transcendent, or more than the sum of all that exists. It’s also a cyclical view of reality in marked contrast to the Christian view. Moreover, there is not the demarcation between the created and the uncreated which exists within Christianity. It’s a fundamentally different narrative.

When you perceive reality as the free overflow of love of a Creator God, the Christian story begins to come into focus and make sense. Of course, the God who loves it would see this creation as fundamentally good and the ones who were created according to the image of Christ in order to be formed into his likeness are seen by God as very good. While they are no less awe-inspiring, the lengths to which this God will go to rescue his creation make sense. They fit. And we also see that the Word would have always had to become flesh for us to ultimately be united with God. We did not have that capacity. If creation had not turned from God, Jesus would not have had to die to defeat death. But he always had to become one with us so that we might be one with God. Salvation is nothing less than union with Christ.

So then we see resurrection for what it is. It is God’s act of new creation for the human being. Death has been defeated and God makes us new. But Christ’s act of new creation does not stop with us. “Behold, I make all things new.” All creation has been rescued and the image we see is one of a new or renewed humanity serving truly as priests within a renewed creation. Unless you glimpse that whole picture, I’m not sure the individual bits and pieces make much sense.


Reflections on Resurrection 6 – Angels?

Posted: November 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 6 – Angels?

I have to confess I feel almost embarrassed to write this post. Yet I have listened and read and it seems to me there is some real confusion among at least some people on this point, so I will say it as simply as I can.

We do not become angels after we die.

Or demons. Or spirit guides. Or any other sort of spiritual or disembodied power.

We don’t know a lot about angels and the other spiritual powers and beings who are part of the fabric of creation. We do know that angels are created beings of spirit. We know they also have free will, though a will unmediated by a material body seems to manifest in different ways. It seems they are either wholly serving God or wholly opposed to him with little of the gray areas and gradual change with which we live. But we mostly know they are different creatures from us.

They are spirit. We are embodied. That is a fundamental and eternal difference. Angels don’t become human beings and human beings don’t become angels. We have bodies and there is really no concept of immaterial existence for human beings within Christianity. Our narrative is one of resurrection.


Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Posted: November 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Resurrection affirms a simple truth. The physical material world around us is fundamentally a good creation of God — and that includes our bodies.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the way many American Christians perceive reality today. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of Christians perceive this body as a prison from which we need to escape. And at least some Christians see this world as something evil that God is going to one day destroy. Neither of these are accurate perceptions and are even reminiscent of some of the most ancient Christian heresies — which held (to oversimplify) that spirit was good and matter was evil.

Our bodies are not prisons we escape. Christianity does not promise a future as spirit like Plato’s happy philosophers. Rather, resurrection is the story of a renewed embodied humanity caring for a renewed physical creation. If we deny the goodness of the material creation, we deny the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. From the Christian perspective, our bodies will be ours forever and the physical, tangible actions we take in and through our bodies have eternal significance. Our actions matter.

Hinduism offers a very different and contrasting narrative. (I have to make my standard disclaimer. It’s not possible to truly reduce the Indian or Vedic religions or paths to a single convenient label. Nor is it possible to summarize without caricaturing that richly diverse and complex tapestry. So anything I write here will be vastly oversimplified. Still I think some of the underlying contrasts offer insights worth considering in this discussion.) It carries the sense that we are ruled by the illusion of a material world distinct from the spiritual reality. That illusion is personified as Maya. Now, Maya is not false or evil, just as Brahman would not be considered good or true. The illusion itself has its own reality, but we should learn to see through it truly. Spirit is the knower of the field and matter is the field. The former is superior and the latter inferior. In a sense, the material reality is illusion and through our inability to see truly, we are trapped on the wheel of suffering.

Once again, that’s so oversimplified it’s almost a caricature, but I think the contrast is helpful. What is real? In many systems, there is a division between spiritual and material. It could be the division of Platonic (or neoplatonic) systems in which the material imprisons the spiritual. Or the material could be more illusory and the underlying reality is purely spiritual. Or, in the case of materialists, all is material and the spiritual is denied.

The Christian perspective holds a different dividing lens to reality. The true division is between the created and the Uncreated — and only God is in the latter category. The created includes both the material and the spiritual. Moreover, it’s a good creation. Yes, it is marred and broken by the freedom God grants creation — the freedom to love and the freedom to despise. (It’s silly to assert that all was right with creation before some archetype of mankind sinned. We are told that even before man existed some of the spiritual beings in creation had turned against God.) It’s a freedom of response that appears woven into the fabric of creation itself. Christianity proclaims the fundamental reality and goodness of both the spiritual and the material. And resurrection is the crowning glory of its rescue and renewal.

If you are Christian, pay attention to the way your tradition speaks about creation and about our own bodies. What is the underlying thread? Is it affirmation or despite? Have we lost sight of what the Incarnation and Resurrection mean?


Saturday Evening Blog Post – October Edition

Posted: November 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post – October Edition

For this month’s edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I selected the first post in my ongoing Reflections on Resurrection series. I almost selected the unplanned post, 15 Authors, that I threw together after being tagged on Halloween. I enjoyed putting that one together quite a bit. But the things I’m trying to say about resurrection (the Christian narrative) as opposed to the many competing narratives about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being are closer to my heart.


Reflections on Resurrection 3 – Preexistence of the Soul

Posted: November 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 3 – Preexistence of the Soul

The preexistence of the soul refers to the understanding that our souls, as disembodied spirits of some sort, existed before our bodies existed. When this is combined with the understanding that our souls are naturally immortal (and it is almost always so combined),  we become possessors of eternal souls. Christianity, of course, confesses God as the only eternal, but I still sense that a lot of Christians today have some belief that their soul somehow existed before they were conceived.

Christianity teaches that we are each created embodied beings and we did not exist before we were conceived. Moreover, in some sense our creation is a synergy between God and our parents. The creation of a whole human being is a beautiful image — much more beautiful to me than the image of shaping a body for an existing spirit to inhabit.

Now, like the immortality of the soul, most people don’t directly talk about the preexistence of the soul. However, I do believe this perception of what it means to be a human being underlies some of the things that are more commonly expressed even among Christians today. I wanted to clearly identify both ideas before proceeding.


Reflections on Resurrection 2 – Immortality of the Soul

Posted: November 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 2 – Immortality of the Soul

It’s hard to decide how to organize this series. I know the outline of the topics I want to cover and the points I hope to make, but the topic does not readily lend itself to decomposition into blog post sized chunks. Nor is the best order in which to publish the various topics at all obvious. I picked the immortality of the soul as my starting point because this thread seems very strong in our culture today.

Of course, it’s tricky to even talk about the soul. What is the soul? What does that word reference? In ancient Hebrew thought (some of which we see in our Old Testament), for instance, the soul simply referred to the whole person. The center of the will was in the heart. The feelings were in the bowels. Life was in the blood. And human beings were also imbued in some sense with the breath from God. Human beings were understood as thoroughly embodied beings.

That’s not how the word is typically used today. Rather the soul is most often seen as purely spiritual. Moreover, this spiritual soul is understood as the real person separate from the body. Our bodies are then seen as mere vessels to contain our souls and separate from our being and identity. I once heard someone describe a modern neo-platonic professor they knew. Instead of saying that he was going for a walk, he would say that he was taking his body for a walk. While most people are not that precise in their language, I sense a thread much like that permeating a great deal of modern Christianity. Only if you perceive the true reality of a person as somehow separate and distinct from their body could you make the statement at a funeral that the body is not the person we have loved and that they have left their body behind like a discarded shell.

Therefore, it seems to me that when people today refer to the immortality of the soul, they usually mean the immortality of that disembodied spirit. And moreover, they seem to consider the spirit somehow naturally immortal. Then Christian faith is often reduced to a proposition regarding the fate of this naturally immortal soul.

And this gets a little tricky since Christianity does in a sense teach the immortality of the soul. However, Christianity does not teach that we are naturally immortal as a disembodied spirit. Rather, through the power of God in the union of the Word and our human nature in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus’ defeat of death, it is no longer the nature of man to die. Hades or death has been emptied. But we have no being that is somehow separate from our bodies and our life flows from God. We have no independent immortality at all. Fortunately, God does not begrudge existence to any of his creation.

It’s a nuanced and, I think, important distinction from what I sense as the common understanding of our culture and that distinction will be important as we proceed through my reflections. That’s why I chose to begin here.


Reflections on Resurrection 1

Posted: October 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Throughout this blog and in my comments elsewhere, I often focus on resurrection. In many ways, it is the Christian teaching of resurrection which drew me deeper into this faith and it is certainly one of the linchpins that keeps me in it. I can say with certainty that if I did not believe in Christ’s Resurrection and that it was the first fruit of our own resurrection, then Christianity would hold no interest for me. As Paul writes, if Christ is not risen then we are of all men the most pitiable.

However, there seems to be a great deal of confusion today, even among Christians, about Resurrection. Since it dawns on me that it is not possible to really understand some of the things I write without understanding what is wrapped up in that one word, I thought it might be wise to write a short series outlining my perspective on the subject. I’ll write, as I normally do, from a personal perspective. If you’re more interested in a comprehensive academic treatment of Christ’s Resurrection, I would recommend N.T. Wright’s big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. That sort of exhaustive treatment is not my goal.

When pressed, I normally describe my background and childhood formation as pluralistic. In order to understand what is behind some of the things I plan to write in this series, I think I need to explain what I mean when I use that term. First, I need to say that my childhood was not shaped within the context of a single non-Christian religion nor was it particularly non-theistic or atheistic — though there were certainly aspects of a number of different religions and non-theistic or loosely theistic influences. However, my childhood, whatever else it may have been, was not anti-Christian at all.

In fact, while I’m not sure anyone growing up in the American South in the 70s could avoid exposure to Christianity, my experience of it was, while pretty varied, largely positive. I was baptized in a Baptist Church at a pretty young age. At different times I attended both Episcopal and Catholic schools. (I also attended a bunch of different public schools, a nonsectarian private school, and was even home-schooled for a few months in Mississippi when my mother discovered the local schools were still segregated.) Over the course of my childhood, I also experienced a wide array of other Christian traditions and denominations. Ironically, though not raised strictly Christian, I probably encountered more of the diversity which constitutes Christianity in America than most of my peers.

I could, if I wanted, frame a relatively typical Baptist conversion narrative. I don’t do so because that does not truthfully capture the reality of my experience. Yes, my encounters with and scattered experiences within a Christian context were authentic (whatever that means), but they were hardly my only spiritual influence. Moreover, my rejection of what I understood about and experienced from Christianity as a sixteen year old teen parent was just as authentic as any of my earlier experience. These were markers on my journey of conversion, but I don’t consider myself to have finally converted to Christian faith and practice until my early thirties when I unexpectedly reached a point where that label described something central to my identity.

Christianity, though, was just one aspect out of many in my formation. My family and thus our extended circle of family friends includes many involved in the scientific and academic community. Although, of the many things I’ve been or practiced, I never felt any pull toward atheism or even classical enlightenment-style deism, that perspective and manner of approaching life and reality has certainly been a part of my formation. I don’t find it threatening. I also do not find it antithetical to belief. I do find that this part of who I am is the part that’s mostly likely to make the determination that a particular religion (or one of the many different Christian Gods proclaimed today) is not worth believing or practicing, and its deity not worth worshiping.

The other most significant and formative spiritual perspective from my childhood was Hinduism. Why Hinduism? The simplest answer is that we had Indian friends and my mother was at least dabbling in it. It was just part of the air I breathed as a child, as present to me as was Christianity. Now, it’s important to recognize that the term itself is a broad label encompassing virtually any religious practice rooted in the perspective found in the ancient Vedic texts. It’s not really a single religion in the sense of a single set of beliefs and practices, though there are a number of consistent underlying perspectives on the nature of reality. Rather, there are many gurus, past and present, who teach different things.

I never really followed a guru. I’m not sure why, exactly. I just didn’t. I did spend some of my late preteen and early teen years actively practicing transcendental meditation, which does have a particular guru, but I never formally engaged it. I just practiced privately using a book as a guide. Beyond that, I explored various published writings including, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.

Hinduism, however, was not the only other part of my childhood spiritual formation. I don’t remember ever hearing the term New Age in the seventies. However, many of the things lumped under that heading in the bookstore today were part of my experience. My parents ran a small press bookstore in Houston for a few years and that gave me easy access to books on numerology, runes, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and many related topics. Even before then, I remember sitting with my mother when I was as young as six or seven as she brought out her tarot deck and did readings. I also clearly remember participating in a past life regression workshop my parents hosted for a friend when I was eleven or twelve. I was captivated by the modern myths of Atlantis. I also recall some interaction with Wiccan and neopagan systems of belief. (In my twenties I also had a number of Wiccan friends.)

After being rejected by and in turn rejecting the Christian aspect of my formation, I tended to operate from a basic Hindu perspective of reality, but I explored a number of different options. I read a fair amount of the Qur’an at one point, but Islam never held any appeal to me. We had had some Jewish family friends growing up and there were aspects of modern Judaism that did appeal to me, but it’s not a direction in which I was particularly drawn. I did explore Buddhism and Taoism, but at the time they didn’t really appeal to me either. (Ironically, I find some elements of both more compelling now after being significantly shaped by Christian faith and practice than I did at the time. If I was going to be anything else other than Christian today, it would probably be one of those two.) I looked a bit at Wicca and neopaganism, but they were just too modern for me, if that makes sense. I have a deep sense of history. You may have noticed that in some of my writings.

For most of my twenties, I settled into a sort of lackadaisical Hindu belief and practice. I didn’t seek a guru. I didn’t actually attend anything. But those were the beliefs about reality I privately held and, to the extent I practiced anything, I practiced Hindu meditation. I also continued to privately practice tarot, but I abandoned most of the other practices in which I had dabbled over the course of my childhood.

Why does this matter for this series? It’s really pretty simple. When we discuss Resurrection and the nature of the human being, a lot of people today — including many Christians — seem to believe something more like the other perspectives in my spiritual formation than anything identifiably Christian. And it seems to me that many people don’t even realize that’s the case. Now, I’m hardly anything approaching a guru when it comes to Hinduism or any other religion. In fact, after the last fifteen years during which I have consciously and deliberately embraced and explored Christian belief and practice, I’m pretty certain I know more about Christianity than I do any other belief system. I absorbed a lot from those other systems and explored them all to some extent, but never with the commitment or to the depth that I have Christianity. Nevertheless, I am conscious of these other perspectives on reality and see their influence (or the influence of some of their cousins) in American Christianity in ways that many, perhaps, do not. And it seems to me that the central point of dissonance lies in the all-important Christian proclamation of resurrection.

I’ll continue this series next week, but if anyone is reading this over the weekend and is willing to share, what thoughts come to your mind when you hear resurrection?


Jesus Creed 30 – At the Tomb with Jesus

Posted: October 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Matthew 28:1-10; Luke 24:13-35; John 20-21.

I think we tend to forget what a total and complete disaster the tomb was for Jesus’ followers. Scot explores that to some extent and relates it back to our experiences of loss. After disaster, we can still find new life. The tomb proved that. Scot draws a central point from it.

If we participate in Jesus’ resurrection by owning his story as our story, we find hope.

Let that sink in. We have hope through the resurrection or not at all. Paul says exactly the same thing. But I’m not convinced that’s truly where Christians today place their hope. I would rather be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Jesus’ life, from front cover to back cover, including the dust jacket, is a life shaped by the Jesus Creed. He learned the Shema from his father and mother; he amended it for his followers in the shape of the Jesus Creed. Most importantly, he lived it. We are called to participate in that very life, for it is that resurrected life that can form our lives.

In Baptism we have died and are risen again with Christ. We proclaim that when Christ came out of that tomb, he healed our nature such that it is no longer the nature of man to die. Without the Resurrection, Christianity has nothing of meaning or value to offer. Without the Resurrection, it’s ridiculous to live as Christians ought to live. But if it’s true, it changes everything and speaks to every aspect of our lives. It’s as simple and as radical as that.


Jesus Creed 25 – In the Jordan with Jesus

Posted: October 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 25 – In the Jordan with Jesus

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Matthew 3:13-17.

This last part of the book looks at the active obedience of Jesus as he lives a perfect life of love. McKnight starts at the Jordan, but it really starts at Jesus’ birth. We just don’t know a whole lot until the Jordan. But we needed someone to pave the way for us. Or as Scot puts it after an opening illustration, “Opening a path to a spiritual clearing is what Jesus does for us with his entire life.”

I’m not sure I fully understand why this aspect of the grace and atonement of Jesus is so very important to me. But I do not I’m not alone. Iraneaus writes about it in the second century. Paul mentions it more than once in the first. For a time recently, people have seemed to find it less important, but that time appears to be passing. I hadn’t particularly noticed this train of thought when I first read The Jesus Creed, but after reading Embracing Grace I’m able to connect it to my reaction. I used different words and found most of my examples in putting it together in the early fathers. But I’ve come to see it’s the same basic idea.

To get these theological terms in focus, we need to remind ourselves of what God asks from us. Here’s the mystery of the Jesus Creed: Jesus both loves God and loves others for us and he summons us to love God and to love others. Three theological terms clarify this. First, Jesus substitutes for us in loving God and others perfectly. The term ‘substitution’ tends to be a little too clinical for what the Bible is getting at, so it is important to observe that, in substituting for us, Jesus also represents us before God in loving God and others. Further, by representing us he empowers us to participate with him in loving God and loving others.

I’m not sure this can be stressed enough. I sometimes have the sense, with some of the things we say and some of the songs we sing that we have reduced the gospel to virtually nothing but the cross. And that’s bizarre for something that doesn’t even show up in Christian art until the fourth century or so. Is the cross important? Absolutely! But when it seems to overwhelm Jesus’ life, his resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, and his promise to come again, which it sometimes seems to do, I think we’re going too far. The whole picture is not just important, but essential. I don’t think I see any ‘most important’ aspect, unless you wanted to say they are all ‘most important’.

Scot then spends some time emphasizing the fact that John’s baptism was for repentance. Why? So he could explore it in this section.

John’s baptism is for repentance, but Jesus is sinless. So why was Jesus baptized? To begin with, we are no more baffled than John himself, for he does his prophet’s best to keep Jesus from jumping into the Jordan with this jumble of sinners. … According to John, never were two people more unequal: the sinful John and the sinless Jesus.

But Jesus is baptized anyway. John’s baptism is for repentance, and Jesus doesn’t need to repent. Clearly then, if Jesus doesn’t need to repent, then he must be repenting for others, for us. Why would he do that?

Because in so ‘repenting for us,’ Jesus begins to unleash the power of the Holy Spirit for his followers. John baptizes with ‘water,’ but Jesus will baptize ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ John is referring here to the prophetic prediction of the coming of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit comes upon Jesus at his baptism when it comes down as a dove, and it comes on all his followers on the great day of Pentecost when they are flooded with the Spirit.

With these considerations, the baptism of Jesus becomes clear: Jesus is baptized to repent perfectly so God can send the Spirit to empower us for our vocations. … The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person — and he would not need it.

Here’s the big picture and how baptism fits into it: the spiritually formed person loves God (by following Jesus) and others. Jesus loves God and others perfectly. We don’t love God perfectly, and we might as well admit it. We love God and others perfectly only when we follow Jesus through our piles of sin, which we do when we participate in Jesus’ own life. This expression ‘following Jesus’ that we’ve often used now gains full clarity: To follow Jesus means to participate in his life, to let his life be ours.

I know that was a long excerpt, but this strikes me as so important. Scot summarizes it in this following thought.

There is only one reason for Jesus to repent for us: We can’t repent adequately.

He proceeds to explore why, and we fail in all areas. We don’t know our own hearts perfectly. We never truly and completely tell the truth to God about sin, however hard we try. Our decisions or commitments to change are flawed and tend to contain that connector ‘but’, and we do not follow through with consistently changed behavior. Basically, we’re pretty lousy at repenting, so Jesus does it for us.

It’s also important to note that John’s baptism was one both of repentance and for forgiveness of sins. By participating in Jesus’ repentance, our sins are truly forgiven. The renovation of our hearts begins. One of the things Baptism today is still for is the repentance of sins. It’s one of a long list of things such as our adoption or entrance into the communion of God’s family and Jesus’ body, but still also for the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus paved the way for us — with his entire life of active obedience.

That cannot be reduced to a single event or sequence of events within his life. His whole life paved the way for us. He blazed the trail through the impenetrable jungle. And it’s the only path that actually leads out.


Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Atonement | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I’ve worked through my thoughts on this blog across a variety of topics from original sin to justification to hell in separate multiple post series on this blog. I have not written such a series on the fairly common Protestant teaching of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA from this point on) because I don’t have anything to work through on the topic and I don’t really have much to say about it. However, this teaching seems to surface in many of the discussions I follow and I’ve become increasingly convinced that I should try to write something on the topic for those who from time to time browse my blog. I don’t really expect there to be more than this one post on this subject unless others raise questions that seem to me to warrant another post.

I will say up front that I’m pretty familiar with this teaching. I’ve read many of the primary sources. I’m familiar with the common prooftexts. I’ve listened to it expounded and taught countless times in countless ways over the years. I understand many of the different ways it is nuanced — both in theory and in practice. But I do think the essence of this teaching is pretty simply stated. In fact, the following statement I recently saw in Sunday School distills it pretty accurately, if not to any great depth.

Jesus died on the Cross to pay God the Father the debt of our sin.

I beg to differ.

St. Gregory the Theologian provides the best summary I’ve found of my reaction to that idea.

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…

I don’t have much to add to what St. Gregory says. As far as I’m concerned, PSA teaches a different God and a different faith than the one I believe. It’s as different to my eyes as the faith taught and the God described by the docetists and the arians.

The problems with PSA are legion. It teaches that God has a problem with forgiveness. Even as he commands us to forgive, he is unable to forgive himself. Rather the infinite debt must be paid in full by someone and since we are finite beings, the debt can only be paid by the divine Son. But PSA fundamentally denies God mercy and forgiveness. Instead, God becomes the unrelenting debt holder. In the mechanics of paying that debt PSA violates everything Christianity says about the nature of the Trinity. It has members of the Trinity acting almost in opposition to each other rather than in concert as one. The Son is paying the debt the Father can’t forgive. The Father is exhausting his divine wrath on the Son. The Spirit almost vanishes from the picture. And even with the debt paid, we are not actually healed and we do not truly commune with God. Instead, we move into a sort of legal fiction. When God looks at us, he doesn’t actually see us. He sees his Son. The list of problems goes on ad nauseum.

Now, that is not to say that the Spirit has not been at work in the groups of Christians who hold some variation of this belief. I would not deny the work of the Spirit anywhere in humanity. And the Spirit certainly has more tools with which to work among those who proclaim that Jesus — the image of the invisible God — is Lord, however distorted their vision of him might be, than among adherents of entirely different world religions.

However, it is also true that there are many people who correctly understand the sort of God postulated by PSA and have rejected that God in revulsion. I empathize with them. If I thought the God described by the PSA theory was really the Christian God, I would absolutely reject Christianity myself. No, our God is the good God who loves mankind. He is the God who has never had a problem forgiving us. He has not required satisfaction. He has not had to have his wrath assuaged by pouring it onto the Son. All three persons of the Trinity were always acting in concert to save us, even in the worst moments on the Cross. Yes, the Cross is indeed the instrument of our salvation, but we never needed to be saved from God. Instead we were rescued by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in and through the Cross by the power of the Resurrection. We were ransomed from sin and death, the powers which enslaved us — not from our good God and not ultimately from the Evil One (though he certainly used the power of sin and death against us).

And, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

I’ve posted it before, but I’ll post again this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Cross. It says much of what I would say better than I could say it.

Understanding the Cross

I would also recommend the much shorter reflection (5 minutes) by Fr. Stephen Freeman.

The Tree Heals the Tree