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Having said that, my recent travels have given me reason to pause. In three different states – in three different regions of the country – I have had the pleasure of attending three different worship services. It was not lost on me that although they are three different denominational backgrounds, they all sang almost identical worship sets.
Now, the uniformity in contexts that proudly eschew liturgy is fascinating enough – but will have to wait.
What I want to focus on today is that in all three services the exact same song appeared … and it is a troubling song in the context of public worship.
I know that looking at contemporary worship music is a delicate affair. I have at times comforted those who are worried about worship. I have at other times needed to be reminded of the poetics involved corporate singing.
It is with appropriate caution that I offer a modest critique of this very popular song. I only bring it up because it is so emblematic of a larger issue that needs addressing.
The song is “How He Loves Us”. Here is how the song starts:
He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
Right off the bat we have 4 problems:
1) Who is ‘He’? The song never references God at all. It never introduces a character and then refers to ‘him’ by pronoun the rest of the time. There is no referent for ‘he’. It is odd to introduce a pronoun without an antecedent.
Herein lies the problem: the assumed ‘you’ (or in this case ‘he’) of modern worship music is too comfortable. I don’t mean in a ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ sort of way. I mean in an christendom assumption that everyone in the room means/thinks the same thing.
This presumption of identity is the exact thing that we need to be correcting/ deconstructing with good and meaningful worship! Instead, we go early and often to therapeutic songs about belonging, identity and longing.
2) Mercy Doesn’t Bend Trees. I get the imagery of the hurricane. It is fine to allude to imagery and even use allegory. Music is expressive! I get that. But if you are going to employ a device … stick with it.
‘He’ is a hurricane, I am a tree. Fine. Wind bends trees. Got it. What is the mercy part? Mercy doesn’t bend trees. That line doesn’t make any sense.
Herein lies the problem: the thoughtless jumping into and out of poetic devices is distracting to anyone who is actually thinking about what they are singing. If your going to employ imagery – go with it. Stick with it. As worshipers we will give you plenty of permission to be creative. Just don’t be distracting.
3) Who are you singing to? The next line of the song then shifts voices/audiences.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.
We were just singing about ‘Him’ and now you (singular) are singing to ‘You’. What happened there? It is like this song loses its train of thought or switches into and out of storytelling mode impulsively.
Herein lies the problem: contemporary worship songs have become so emotive that what may be appropriate for the song writer’s personal/private experience may not be as suitable for public/corporate worship.
4) He Loves Us. The chorus then has another shift in voice and audience and now ‘we‘ are signing about ‘Him’. The music swells and settles into a powerful and constant sway. The audience comes together into full-throated unity. It is an amazing crescendo and it resonates deeply in our hearts as we remind each other of the deepest truth in the universe: God is love (I John 4:8) and that love is for the whole world (John 3:16).
Herein lies the problem: the chorus is beautiful and deep and meaningful and true. So my concern about the distracting and scattered nature of the song up to this point may lead someone to ask “You don’t like that song? I love that song! It means so much to me and I experienced God’s love when we sang it.” And that is the problem! Because songs are so powerful and people’s experience in/of them is so profound and meaningful … we need to be more careful with the stuff we throw up on the powerpoint projector.
My concern is not with the sincere congregant who throws themselves whole-heartedly into a worship chorus and isn’t analyzing every detail of the progression and theology. God bless them!
My concern is with the leadership that chooses and orchestrates the worship gathering! We need to love, lead and protect people because they are vulnerable when they on their knees – with their eyes closed – and their hands raised to heaven. That is a vulnerable position and we are asking them to offer their whole hearts to God – we can’t be this sloppy and unquestioning in our song selection.
I could go on with my critique of this song. It gets weirder and more erratic. I don’t want to beat a dead horse though.
Let me close with this: If you were to take the lyrics of a song and plug them into one of those ‘word bubble’ generators, if ‘He’ is the biggest word + ‘God’ never appears in the song = the song is making assumptions we cannot afford to make in the 21st century.
In a post-modern post-christendom context, people are coming in with both great needs and massive assumptions. We are missing the very opportunity that worship of the living God provides when we don’t challenge those assumptions (of both God’s identity as well as our own identity) and meet those needs of forgiveness, acceptance and belonging.
It is time to ask again what the purpose of worship is and then select songs accordingly. Otherwise we are missing an opportunity to teach about God and introduce people to that God who loves them so very much.
I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, concerns and corrections.
John Dominic Crossan is back on the podcast. Crossan is a legendary New Testament scholar, Jesus Seminar provocateur, and popular lecturer all across the progressive church. We will discuss the last 30 years of historical Jesus research, its role in the academy, the growing audience in the public square, changes in the church and his two most recent books The Power of Parable & The Greatest Prayer.
We recently re-published Crossan’s first visit to the podcast over 5 plus years ago on the new Barrel Aged podcast stream. Go check out his discussion of God and Empire which remains my favorite book of his.
A question was posed to me on twitter about propitiation in connection with last month’s pre-Easter posts (and good Friday). I got permission from Michael Hardin to use a large amount of text from his book A Jesus Driven Life. You can also listen to my interview with Hardin for more.
Here is Hardin (formatted for a blog):
Observe three critical areas where the early fathers missed important aspects of the non-sacrificial hermeneutic witnessed to in the Hebrew Bible and exploited in the New Testament.
That is, they missed the insight that there was a development away from all sacrifice, and that God neither wanted nor desired sacrifices (Psalm 40; Jer. 7; Amos 5; Psalm 51, etc).
Had they perceived this they would not have laid the framework for the later church to speak of God in almost schizophrenic terms. In what appears to become a tortured discussion in later Christian theology, the work of the Son somehow appeases the wrath and hatred of the father who loves (sic) humanity. God’s anger and mercy battle like mythological Titans. And this battle is still reflected in contemporary doctrines of the atonement.
Only in I Clement and a century later in Irenaeus are Cain and Abel even mentioned. The crucial role of imitation in Genesis that issues in violence and sacrifice and the unmasking of the victim in Genesis 4 is muted when Augustine interprets Genesis 3 through his neo-Platonist glasses and blames humanity’s fall on sexual desire. The other significant person to pick up on this some 1500 years later also, namely Sigmund Freud, like Augustine, missed the founding murder. Sexual desire, like before, became the culprit.
There is no wholesale appropriation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament. In short, the church’s indulgence in dualistic categories set up conflict in all of its subsequent theological discussion.
The disastrous dualism that plagued early Christian controversies continues to do so to the present day.
Colin Gunton claims that what the doctrine of impassability (that God the Father cannot suffer) was to the church fathers, post-Kantian dualism is to modern theology (the split between what you know and what is really there). God is ‘beyond’ and there is no bridge between there and here; hence, there can be no suffering God. Indeed the patripassionist debate of the second and third centuries (could God suffer, did the Father also suffer or just the Son?) is, according to Jaroslav Pelikan, the same issue that faced Marcion and the Gnostics, viz., “the crucifixion and death of the one who was called God.”
It is no mistake that the very crisis of bringing together the two Testaments, and the two different understandings of God, was also the time when the church turned to the Platonic notion of the unchanging God.
Either God changes or God doesn’t change. Or we have got God wrong. And this last is tough to admit.
So tough in fact as to be unthinkable for those who were transforming Christianity from a persecuted movement into an institution of power.
The point of exploring this issue is to note that the troublesome problem of the violence of God in the Hebrew Bible played a key role in how the early church understood God. While it is true that the ethics they taught were nonviolent (as we saw in The Didache and the Gospel of Matthew), they could not see what Jesus also taught was the theology of a nonviolent God.
Their Platonism blinded them. (1)
On Romans 3
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion], through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
There are several key questions we must resolve in order to interpret this text.
The KJV translates this term as “propitiation” while the RSV uses “expiation.”
To propitiate a god is to make a sacrifice to appease wrath, anger or a curse. We are already familiar with this as the sacrificial principle.
On the other hand, to expiate sin is to remove it; it looks to the object causing sin rather than God as the object to be appeased.
There has been quite a bit of ink spilled over which translation best captures hilasterion. Those who reject an angry divinity prefer expiation while those like neo-Reformed thinkers John Piper and Thomas Schreiner believe that God’s wrath needs to be assuaged and justice satisfied prefer propitiation.
The way out of this dilemma is to follow the logic of Paul’s subversion of the sacrificial process. Robert Hamerton-Kelly points out that, “The major new element is that Paul inverts the traditional understanding of sacrifice so that God is the offerer, not the receiver, and the scapegoat goes into the sacred precinct rather than out of it. Christ is a divine offering to humankind, not a human offering to God. In the normal order of sacrifice, humans give and the god receives; here the god gives and humans receive. The usual explanation of this passage is that human sin deserved divine punishment, but in mercy God substituted a propitiatory offering to bear the divine wrath instead of humanity. We must insist on the fact that the recipients are human, otherwise we fall into the absurdity of God’s giving a propitiatory gift to God.
Normally the offerer goes from profane to sacred space to make the offering; here the offerer comes out of sacred space into profane, publically to set forth (proetheto) the propitiation (hilasterion) there. These inversions of the normal order of sacrifice mean that it is not God who needs to be propitiated, but humanity, and not in the recesses of the Sacred, but in the full light of day.”
The point of this is that if one insists on translating hilasterion as propitiation then one must also take into consideration the subversion of the sacrificial principle. There is therefore, in this passage no justification for arguing that God’s wrath must be propitiated. We humans are the ones who need to be appeased.
Whether we translate hilasterion as ‘propitiation’ or ‘expiation’, in neither case do we need speak of God’s wrath being appeased, it is not in the text itself, it can only come from prior assumptions regarding sacrifice in general. (2)
1: Hardin, Michael (2013-09-26). The Jesus Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity With Jesus, 2nd Edition Revised and Expanded (Kindle Locations 3641-3683). JDL Press. Kindle Edition.
2: Locations 6240-6278.
Unfolded is back!
It’s not a stretch to say that this year we’ve had along, hard winter, and I (Jesse) wrote a story about it. Give it a listen, I think it is one of our best episodes yet! Matt once again kills it on the 1’s and 2’s.
We hope you enjoy.
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In light of the massive shifts in culture, understanding and expectation that the last 300 years has seen, there seem to be three great temptations for the devout.
Last week we talked about the problems that Modernity brought to Christianity’s doorstep in the West. Science had moved into the driver’s seat and was none too kind to those who would not get on board.
The problem, of course, is that we are simply not left the option to go back to primitive Christianity. For Lent this year I read books about post-Nuclear theology and listened to lectures on the first twelve centuries of Church history. It has never been more apparent that the world has changed in drastic ways.
Are just 3 catalysts and results of this epic (and epoch) shift.
Tomorrow I will present what I see as the amazing opportunity. Today I want to comment on what seem to be the 3 biggest temptations for modern Christianity:
Faith as a public matter has never been more challenging. The easiest response is to both personalize ones faith and then make it private. This is a two-step dance but either is dangerous on its own.
Personalizing faith is a natural response for an Enlightenment Individual. We major in ‘self’. We have cultivated the ability to think in ‘me’. This is a novel development in religion and some argue that it is against the very nature of religion! The purpose of religion is to bind us together in practice (re-ligio) or reconnect us as a belief-community.
The second step is to internalize ones personal faith. In liberal democracy, no one cares if you believe something – just keep it to yourself. Don’t put it on someone else. Your personal practice in there or over there is one thing … just don’t make too big of a deal about out here. Out here we have a civil expectation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If your religion helps as a means to those ends, fine. If not, it might become an issue of you infringe on someone else right. Go ahead and practice your ‘tradition’ on your own time but just keep it down when you’re out here in public.
The modern expression of Christianity has responded to this two-step dance in many little ways – my favorite of which is consumeristic-accessorization. The bumper sticker on my interal-combustion automobile and the fashionable yet ironic message T that imitates a popular ad campaign are just two examples. It allows me to allude to a Bible verse (I am not of the world after all) while participating in a capitalist system that goes unquestioned.
To counter the personal-and-internal compromise noted above, an aggressive and external coup has been attempted. The memory of Christendom has fueled a political response to take back power and ‘return to our roots’. The rise of the Religious Right (and Moral Majority) of the past four decades is perhaps the most high-profile example. It is, however, just the latest incarnation of this impulse.
The fond (and white-washed) memories of days gone by and yesteryear fuel an anger at what is seen as a disintegrating culture and a slouching toward Gomorrah. The resulting Culture Wars and political animosity have a fundamental problem however:
Ever since the Constantinian compromise in the 4th century is has been difficult (if not impossible) to get the Bible to say what one needs it to say in order to justify a claim to power.
A religion founded on the teaching of a marginalized prophet and incubated in persecuted minority communities does not lend itself to being in charge. An incredible amount of selective editing, creative hermeneutics and mental gymnastics are required to make it fit. At some point a voice like Yoder comes along and points out that ‘this is untenable’.
The above two responses are both simpler and more obvious (and thus more popular) than our last response. The retreat is more subtle and sophisticated. I will return to Theology at the End of Modernity from the first post.
Those who seek to answer the questions raised by the work of Gordon Kaufman (primarily Sheila Greeve Davaney and Linell E. Cady) have deep concern about a school of thought that seeks to move the Christian tradition toward an “autonomous and protected location”.
A seductive temptation is found in an attempt to preserve former (historic) expressions of the faith behind linguistic fences (insulated language games) and communities that become isolated silos. These “are really retreats into forms of fideism or ‘protective strategies’ that seek ways of interpreting theological discourse so as to preserve its unique status.”
The Post-Liberal work of Lindbeck and the Radical Orthodoxy camp of Milbank and MacIntyre are in danger of this.
Those who follow this line of reasoning:
“contend that theology is not properly about ascertaining indubitable truth claims about God or reality, nor about fathoming the depths of human subjectivity; rather, the task is to analyze and explicate the fundamental claims about reality and human life that have emerged within a specific tradition, so that believers might more fully appropriate and live out of their tradition’s vision of reality.”
It becomes a:
“self-enclosed historical community; its method is interpretive, not critical; and its goal is to aid in the internalization of central claim, not the critique or reconstruction of that which we have inherited.” p. 6
You can see the attraction of the retreat! By privileging “revelation” or the “given-ness” of the tradition, one is afforded the space to preserve and defend an inherited system which immune for outside critique and thus preserved in its ‘as is’ status.
This romantic preservation and reclamation mistakenly – and perhaps intentionally – defends and protects manifestations and consequences that we not only need to move on from but we to which we can not possible return to.
In part 3 we will conclude this series with a challenge to make the Christian faith “pluralistic, public, and critical”.
 “by emphasizing an ahistorical human subjectivity, (they seem) to find an autonomous sphere protected from the challenge of other forms of inquiry, then the cost of such independence was the removal of both theology and religion from the public sphere.” p.5
I awoke to a provocative text from my friend on the East coast yesterday morning. He had a 3 hour head start on me and I assume he was at an Easter sunrise service.
My friend knows that I now minister in a context where not everyone believes in physical resurrection, preferring a more ‘spiritual’ interpretation or even a poetic one.
He wanted to know how you preach hope without a physical resurrection. I informed him that it is was almost no different. For all the energy and effort we put into defending the Evidence That Demands a Verdict reading of the Easter story, the reality is that:
That was a sobering realization for me a couple of years ago.
Side Note: This is why I get into it with Tripp when he insists on THE resurrection and scoffs at my preference for Resurrection. [you can read about his disdain for my friend ‘Al’ here]
I thought it would be fun put my response here and compare notes with others who have been on both sides of this fence.
“In the same way that the disciples experienced the presence of Christ after Easter, we experience God’s presence with us.
Through the presence of God’s holy spirit we both re-member Christ and are empowered to obey Jesus’ teaching and as we do this we are the Body of Christ and the presence of God in the world.
We know that in Christ there is a life beyond death and the grave does not have the last word.”
It is strangely both encouraging and discouraging a the same time to realize.
Living as Easter people is a privilege and joy! We proclaim good news in the Gospel of incarnation and emanuel.
We live into the new life and know that there is life beyond death! It is actually really good news that we have share – no matter if our view is physical, spiritual or poetic.
We talked about the dangers of a penal substitution theory of atonement yesterday. I want to thank everyone who shared, retweeted, emailed and commented. The sincerity and the level of interest were very encouraging to me – as was the level of pushback. It reminds me of exactly how much all of this matters to people.
The overwhelming theme of yesterday was “what about Isaiah 53?”. I would never have thought it would come up as much as it did. It apparently is a linchpin that holds a whole system of biblical interpretation, belief and practice together.
As we prepare to look at the role Isaiah 53 plays, I want to begin with some general confessions.
1) I was raised loving Isaiah 53. My first live rock show was Stryper for heaven’s sake. I get why this stuff is important and that is why I attempt to handle it so carefully (except for the random cheeky hyperbole to keep readers alert).
2) My point yesterday was the New Testament never refers to the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus. It is the one thing that we know didn’t happen on Good Friday. For people to continually, then, refer to a passage for the Hebrew Testament was supremely telling for me.
3) There are going to be three types of readers of this post.
You can see this in the 7 Saying of the Cross. None of the 7 appear in all 4 gospels. We have assembled them. We have amalgamated them. We have harmonized them.
It is called a construct. The 7 Sayings of the Cross are a construction. The traditional order of the sayings is:
This might be eye-opening to reader 2. When you are taught to read the Bible in a harmonized way, Jesus said 7 things from the cross. You may not know or even care that you have to turn to 4 different accounts to accumulate the 7 sayings. It may never dawned on you that they were telling four different kinds of stories within the bigger story.
In the same way many readers are making the mistake of mashing together The Day of Atonement’s “scapegoat” and the Passover’s lamb. This is causing great confusion. BUT when you are comfortable harmonizing Old and New Testament, the four Gospel accounts and Jewish holidays/imagery into one big thing … this is going to happen.
It would take too much to write for all 3 readers. Since #1 doesn’t care anyway and reader #3 is probably not building a theology around a poetic/prophetic passage from the Earlier Testament (that is what they would call it). I will focus on Reader 2!
What follows are the words of Hardin, Heim and Jones on Isaiah 53 – all texts are available in Kindle.
” This is not about an economy of exchange. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say God is angry or wrathful with sinners, nor does he ever say or imply that God’s wrath must be appeased before God can accept sinners back into the fold.
None of the logic of the sacrificial principle can be found in anything Jesus says regarding his death. If Jesus death was not a sacrificial act, relating to the logic of giving and receiving then what was it? First, it was a political act. It was Pilate, as representative of Caesar, who gave the order of execution. It was pagan Empire that actually carried out the crucifixion. Although it is true that Jesus was ‘handed over’ to the Jewish leadership by one of his disciples, and it is also true that Jesus was ‘handed over’ to Pilate by these same religious authorities, it was the pagan sacrificial system of Empire that killed Jesus.
The Passion Narrative has a certain structure that is familiar to readers of ancient stories, the structure of all against one (5.2, 6.3). As we noted earlier, virtually everyone with the exception of a few women, participated in the execution of Jesus. No one is left out. To put it bluntly, Jesus was lynched by an angry mob.
Like the victim of Psalm 22 or the servant of Isaiah 53, he was alone; no one came to his aid, no one stood up for him, no one cried out that what was being perpetrated was an injustice. Sometimes Christians look at the cross of Jesus and see a singular unique event.
The fact that Jesus so clearly ties his death into the deaths of other victims (like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53) ought to indicate that he does not see his death in sacrificial terms. In fact he sees a clear connection between his death and all of the unjust deaths of his sacred history. In Matthew 23:29-36 Jesus addresses his contemporaries with a warning: they will experience the cataclysm of social disintegration because they persist in using violence against individuals to solve their social crises.
“I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of the righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar.”
Jesus points out that the history of the Jewish people is a history bounded by murder: the very first murder of the Jewish ‘canon’ was that of Abel (Genesis 4:8) and the last murder, that of Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:20-21). His death will be like that of every prophet sent by God to Israel. The difference between Jesus’ death and that of the prophets, from Abel to Zechariah, was that their deaths took place in or by sacred altars; it was in the context of sacrifice, near a bloody altar that they die. Jesus does not die in the Temple or near an altar. His death is completely secularized; he dies on a hill “outside the city gate” (Hebrews 13:12).
This becomes an important clue that Jesus’ death was to be interpreted as other than the usual sacrificial practice of making an offering to appease the deity. So, Jesus’ death is not to be interpreted in the logic of the sacrificial principle but as the subversion and end of it. (1)
Jesus’ death was God’s way of coming into the machinery of sacrifice and tossing in a wrench to stop it from working ever again. The sacrificial principle is the dark side of religion of which Jesus’ death is the light.
Mark Heim in his book Saved from Sacrifice sums it up best:
“The truth is that God and Jesus together submit themselves to human violence. Both suffer its results. Both reveal and overcome it. God does not require the death of the Son anymore than Jesus requires the helpless bereavement of the Father. Jesus’ suffering is not required as an offering to satisfy God anymore than one member of a team undertaking a very dangerous rescue mission ‘requires’ another dearly loved member to be in a place of peril or pain. They are constantly and consistently on the same side. By virtue of their love and communion with each other, each suffers what the other suffers. They are not playing out a war in the heart of God.” (2)
So how does this apply to PSA? Tony Jones explains:
When Anselm wrote Cur Deus Homo, there was “penal” in the substitution. There was no penal code in his day, no forensic understanding of justice. In fact, Anselm’s theory is better understood as “satisfaction” than as “substitution.”
According to Anselm, we owe God a debt, and that debt is obedience. But because of our sin, we are incapable of paying that debt, we are incapable of obedience to God. Jesus Christ, being perfectly obedient to God, is able to pay that debt, and he did so on the cross. We are not thereby freed of our obligation to obey, but we are freed of the arrears that we owe.
Five centuries after Anselm, along came Calvin. With the mind of a lawyer and the government of Geneva in his sights, Calvin took Anselm’s satisfaction theory and turned it up a few notches. It’s not just that we owe God a debt due to our disobedience, it’s that divine justice demands that we be punished for our disobedience.
Basically our sin cannot be forgiven without punishment. Christ’s death satisfies that demand, and we are forgiven of our sins based on Christ’s death. (3)
When you put all of this together, I hope that you can see:
I would love your feedback and look forward to your thoughtful responses – concerns – and questions. I hope that this has been helpful.
Exploring historic atonement theories during Lent has been eye-opening. At one of the gatherings of my church, atonement theories have fueled our conversations the past 6 weeks (you can listen here).
I have to come to appreciate both the complexity and the beauty that has gone into these attempts to address and explain what happened in the Easter narrative over the centuries. We have looked at:
as well as the work of Michael Hardin and books like Saved from Sacrifice. It is moving to see just how much imagery and creativity can come from a word-picture or metaphor. This is the beauty of analogy. Whether it is a legal picture, a battle field, a cosmic transaction or a divine gift, you begin to understand just how rich and how potent these theories are.
One might even say that there is a surplus of meaning available in the Easter account – an overflow of interpretive possibilities. I have even gone on record as saying that what happened on that cross and in the empty grave is so consequential and so layered in rich meaning – so cosmically meaningful – that no one word-picture or analogy can exhaust or satisfy the depth of its meaning.
In talking about legal dramas or military pictures or ransom schemes or moral exemplars we do not account for the totality of all the imagery or significance that are contained in the events of Easter.
It is all the more interesting, then, to stumble onto the reality that there is a theory being popularized that is both un-biblical and against the revealed character of God. For all of the analogies, metaphors and word-pictures that we find in the surplus of possible meanings, it is notable there is one we know did not happen.
The one thing that we absolutely know did not happen on Good Friday is that God did not pour out ‘his’ wrath on Jesus. The idea that God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus is both:
The first one is obvious. The second requires about 20 seconds of thought.
Look up ‘wrath’ in any Bible concordance. You will see a couple of references to the Hebrew Bible. You will see a couple of predictions. You will find a few allusions to God’s displeasure with sin. I’m not saying that God is not capable of wrath! What I am saying is that what you will not find is any reference to God’s wrath being poured out on Jesus.
It is simply not in the Bible.
You may say “OK, it is not in the Bible – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not true!”
If one pursues the satisfaction theory one might come to a place that says “God’s justice requires that a penalty be paid.” Then one might say that humanity, it its fallen state, did not have the ability to pay that penalty. One might further say that repentance/retribution/restitution was required. That would all be within the bounds of God’s justice.
What is not within the bounds of God’s justice is the idea that the penalty of one would be exacted on another.
Even the Augustine loving Lutheran I have been learning Church History from says this is ridiculous.
Let’s use an analogy: If you owe me $10,000 and you can not pay me – so I get it from your mom, I have not forgiven your debt. There is no forgiveness in that scenario. I got what I was owed. If, however, you did something that offended me and I ‘forgave’ you – that may not be satisfactory for you to have learned your lesson. You need to do some penance in order to display your contrition. What if someone else did it for you? Would that be just? No. What if I took out my anger at you on someone else? That would be unjust as well.
I have heard proponents of PSA say that God did it out of love for us. That is both not good enough and perverse.
The problem with penal substitutionary atonement theory 3-fold:
There is much more to say in refuting the vile and abusive picture that PSA paints of God and of the Good Friday narrative. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to say that for all of the imaginative word pictures and analogies that have developed throughout the centuries – the one thing we can be sure of is that God’s wrath was not poured out on Jesus at the cross.
It is found nowhere in the Bible and it goes against the revealed character of God.
We can go and worship tonight knowing that whatever happened at Golgotha and whichever pictures we want to use to explore the richness and depth of meaning, God was not beating Jesus up for us – not even out of some perverse love.
There is no question that something happened there. Not only did something happen – something happened that is so rich in meaning, so overflowing in depth and so significant in imagery that we have not yet exhausted the multiplicity of word-pictures and metaphors it will take to explore it.
The one picture we can not afford to entertain is an un-biblical and un-just analogy that paints God as a vengeful monster with an anger problem. For all that did happen on that day – penal substitutionary atonement is the one thing we know did not happen on Good Friday.
For Lent this year I did an interesting experiment. I did not give up anything but instead added an exercise as a discipline. My goal was to engage both the earliest days of the church’s past and stretch myself to imagine the church’s future. I did this by engaging two things:
This has been a profoundly enriching experience and I am left with several observations as this season comes to an end.
1) I have never been more impressed or moved by the passion of the early centuries. What they were attempting to do was so formidable and expansive that a great deal of respect must be paid to them by anyone attempting to engage in a theological endeavor. From figuring out how a concept of Trinity could work with monotheism, to the incarnation within greek metaphysics – from eternal begotten-ness to the double procession of the Filioque clause controversy … one has to respectfully give a nod to what they were up against the overwhelming effort that was exerted. This is the first time that I have revisited either the patristic or the Middle Ages since I took on as conversation partners Process thought, Post-Colonial concerns or Critical Theory. This is the sixth time I have cycled around to the early church studies in the 20 years since I trained for ministry. It has been, by far, the most enlightening.
2) I have never been more convinced of both the situated and contextual nature of the church’s theology and practice. It is not just that those saints of the past lived in a different time, a different place and spoke a different language than we do – they were dealing with entirely different sets of concerns and with totally different sets of data. From Augustine, to Abelard – from Anselm to Aquinas, once you enter into the intricacies and nuanced argumentation of these doctrinal concerns, you can’t escape the fact that they were a product of their time. All theology is contextual and an honest examination of any doctrine or teaching reveals that their situated nature and specific location (time and place) played as much of a role in their development as any formulation that might have come out of them. The pre-Moderns were not only asking different questions than we are, they were working with different material than we are. Their philosophical assumptions, their metaphysical frameworks, their limitations of language and their pre-scientific world-views all have to be taken into account when evaluating their writing and thought.
3) I have never been more aware of our contemporary situation and how modernity has completely changed the game. To contrast the examination of the early centuries I have been reading the work of Gordon Kaufman, and more importantly, those who attempt to answer the questions that he raises. Kaufman is famous for his ‘Theology for a Nuclear Age’ but I am far more impressed with those who responded to him in ‘Theology at the End of Modernity’. Sheila Greeve Davaney, Sallie McFague, Linell E. Cady, Wayne Proudfoot, Francis Schussler Fiorenza, John Cobb and Mark C. Taylor have been rocking me.
Kaufman says that we live in an unprecedented time after a) the Holocaust b) Hiroshima and c) global environmental degradation. Human’s capacity to destroy life and wipe out humanity means that we are in a different epoch (era) that comes with unique concerns and an unequaled intensity. I agree with him.
We have to be concerned with things that Origen and Augustine simply never had to consider. We also have access to information that Aquinas and Calvin would have had no reference point for. We live in a new day. We have different concerns. We deal with levels of consequence they never had to consider. This is a new epoch – where the threat isn’t from the heavens or a realm beyond (super-natural). It is all too present and in the natural.
This admission leads to/calls for some significant adjustments to ones approach to life, thinking, theology and practice. We can’t go on just saying the same things (parroting / repetition) without variation. At some point it becomes unfaithful.
Take the foot-washing ceremony that often accompanies Maundy Thursday services. The unique element of the Biblical accounts is that Jesus shocked his followers by doing something that they would have been very familiar with. The novelty was who did the foot-washing. We live in an era where the novelty is the foot-washing itself. It has also changed from an everyday and practical occurrence to ceremonial and liturgical one.
“So even when we do the same thing that they did we are not doing the same thing they did.”
We live in a different time and in a different culture, which asks us a different set of questions, so that even when we give the same answers we are not saying the same thing.
4) It has never been more obvious that we can not go back. By looking at both the first 12 centuries and the last 30 years at the same time, it has deftly illustrated how extreme the gap is. What rests in the gap is modernity. It has become so clear why some want to go back to primitive or ancient expression of the Christian faith. I get the impulse to reclaim Augustine or Aquinas. I get the notion of converting to Greek Orthodox or Catholic. I feel the pull of retreating into insulated or isolated language games like the Post-Liberal or privileging an antiquated notion polis or habitus like the Radical Orthodoxy camp.
I get why that is desirable – It’s just that it is impossible. Like foot-washing on Maundy Thursday, even when you are doing the same thing you are not doing the same thing. It only appears that way.
This is Modern Christianity’s problem (the title of this post).
“ While science gained as the model for truth and the traditional arguments for God’s existence were eclipsed, theologians increasingly turned to the depths of human subjectivity as the source of religious experience and belief.”
Thus the attraction of reverting to former notions of tradition, revelation or isolation.
In “an autonomous and protected location in a modern world where science reigned and religious claims had lost their rational force … by positing that religious experience was a unique dimension of experience, differentiated by its unmediated and nonlinguistically interpreted character and hence not accountable to the canons of scientific inquiry and explanation. Thus religious and theological spheres, without legitimacy or security … appeared to have found a new and unassailable place in the modern world.”*
I am not saying there is only one way forward. I am saying that there are hundreds of ways forward – it’s just that there is no way back.
In part 2 I will address the new need. In part 3 I will cover the two most obvious and wrong responses.
* Devaney in the introduction