When Crisis Hits – Elena and Patrick Franklin

This Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. EST, Elena and I will be giving a joint talk, with conversation and Q&A, in collaboration with the Waterloo Chapter of the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation. It’s online and free! We welcome you to join us!

Here is a brief abstract of our topic:

WHEN CRISIS HITS: CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS ON FAITH IN THE MIDST OF SUFFERING

One Story. This is a story of one family thrust into a journey of intense crisis and suffering. And the faithful surrounding of the family of God, the incredible action of the medical community, and the steadfast engagement, faith, and advocacy of a woman for her husband – who had lived his life for others in ethics advising, teaching and ministry and one day awakened to his own body on the precipice of death.

Event Page on the CSCA website: https://www.csca.ca/events/event/wat-franklins-20/

Event Page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/678251139796486/

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JESUS vs. PAUL?

Jesus vs. Paul?

Sometimes, I encounter Christians who seem to pit Jesus against Paul. I’m not always sure why they do that, but I think it relates to an assumption that Paul is uptight and demanding while Jesus is gracious, compassionate, and accepting. Also, this impression is more likely to follow as a reaction against readings of Paul that do not attend carefully to the contextual features of his writing and logic.

I don’t think this view is right about either Jesus or Paul, and I don’t think it’s correct to favour ‘Jesus’ (meaning the gospels) over Paul (the Pauline epistles) when reading Scripture (however, see my caveats about this below).

Here are some reasons why:

(1) 

Strictly speaking, Jesus did not write the gospels. Others did. So, the gospels do not give us Jesus in an unmediated way. They are theologically motivated narratives.

What we have is Matthew’s  Jesus, Mark’s Jesus, Luke’s Jesus, and John’s Jesus. And John’s Jesus differs (but in a complementary way) from the other gospels. For John, the primary content of Jesus’s message is Jesus himself (Jesus is the WORD made flesh; he simply is God’s theology personified; he is the exegesis of the Father; the one described shockingly in the I AM statements; the one who claims that only he knows the Father and others do not; the one who will send forth the Spirit which he receives from the Father, etc.). For the synoptic gospel writers, Jesus’s message centres on the kingdom of God, and Jesus’s gospel is closely related that kingdom: “The kingdom of God is at hand; Repent and believe the gospel [good news]!”

Moreover, according to Jesus, the Old Testament points to and speaks about him too (e.g., Luke 24:25-27; John 5:39). So, we have Jesus according to Moses, Jesus according to the Prophets, and so forth. And in the NT, we do not have Jesus versus Paul, but Jesus according to Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, and – yes – Paul too (and Peter and James and whoever wrote Hebrews, etc.).

In short, Jesus is the divine Word, to whom Scripture (in its entirety, as canon) bears witness in written word and as inspired and illuminated by the Spirit. 

(2) 

The Resurrected Jesus himself directly commissions Paul to be his Apostle, especially to the Gentiles. Paul also has the task of rethinking Jewish faith and history in light of the Incarnation, life and teachings, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And he is uniquely equipped to accomplish this task. Paul is a Pharisee – and one of the most highly trained scholars of Scripture of his day (a student of Gamaliel). His knowledge of the Scriptures (and the history of interpretation) certainly exceeds that of the other apostles. This does not make his letters superior, or his revelation superior, but it does put Paul in a unique place to re-interpret the significance of the Hebrew Bible in light of Jesus.

(3) 

The other disciples/apostles accepted Paul’s authority. Peter – THE ROCK – even accepts rebuke from Paul. It’s clear that whatever hang-ups contemporary readers have with Paul, the earliest church did not share any such reservations about his writings.

(4) 

Paul also seems to be uniquely gifted charismatically. He speaks in tongues, prophecies, and has visions and mystical experiences, an interesting corroborating sign of God’s presence with him. And it speaks to Paul’s holistic theology; he’s not just about concepts and theories. He’s also about wonder, praise, and ecstatic utterances. And he’s about narratives, metaphors, typologies, theological interpretation, and practical application

(5) 

In practice, Paul seems to be the most proactive discipler and mentor of others. Think of Timothy. Think of Priscilla and Aquilla. Think of the many people cited at the end of his letters (like Romans 16 – including key women like Junia). Aside from Jesus, Paul seems to do more discipling and mentoring than others (at least in the records we have, which admittedly might not tell the whole story). He is constantly raising others up to continue in and complete the work that he starts (and continues with, in a mentoring role).

A couple more comments about popular yet mistaken sentiments about Jesus vs. Paul:

(1)

If you are looking for harsh sayings, Jesus outdoes Paul. I don’t think the comparison is even close. Just try reading any one of the gospels in one sitting sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Jesus talks about hell (so do Peter and James, both connected to Jesus’s life before his death); Paul does not. Jesus says not one letter of the Law will be dropped (and that he’s come to fulfill it, not abolish it); Paul seems to say *in some ways* grace makes the Law obsolete. 

Jesus’s teaching in the sermon on the mount is every bit as demanding as anything in Paul (more so, perhaps). As just one example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matt 5:27-30) 

(2)

If you wanted to construct a universalist doctrine of salvation, you would go to Paul for that, not Jesus. Jesus constantly preaches repentance (“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”), talks about the sheep being separated from the goats (Matt 25), asserts that those who don’t believe in him “stand condemned already” (John 3:17), that he will say to “many” who have called him “Lord” outwardly yet disregarded his teachings, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt 7:22-23). And so on. Paul talks about Christ bringing unity and redemption to “all things” (Col 1). He speaks of justification through faith, not works. He emphasizes grace, etc. 

Moreover, Jesus is constantly disrupting people. Many turn away because his teaching seems too difficult (e.g., Matt 19:16-30; John 6:60). And he says provocative things like “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10:37-38). And, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10:34). And “I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matt 10:35).

Meanwhile, Paul says things like, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). And Paul is constantly looking to foster unity and to bring Jews and Gentiles together, for example by taking up the collection amongst the Gentile churches to bless and provide for the Jewish churches and thus foster partnership and togetherness.

Concluding Thoughts

To be clear, I am not trying to pit Jesus against Paul here!!!  I actually think they represent the same message, the same gospel, the same holistic life of faith. I’m just problematizing simplistic portraits of Jesus as loving and gentle and Paul as strict and authoritative. I don’t think that picture fits the details. The picture is much more complex. I think the gospels and the Pauline letters are doing different things, but speaking to a unified reality, a unified gospel worked out in different ways and in different contexts.

Of course, in one very important sense, I DO think that Jesus is superior to Paul. JESUS IS GOD, Paul is not! He is infinitely superior to Paul!!!

But I also think that the Scriptures (including the gospels) give us mediated access to Jesus, not direct or unmediated access. The gospel writers shape, arrange, redact, and frame their materials according to their theological purposes (and Mark and Luke were not even disciples or eyewitnesses). So, my overall view is that Scripture (in its entirety, as canon) mediates Christ to us via the gospels, via Paul, via the OT, etc. Christ as the Living Word inspires the authors and thus speaks through them. I think the Gospels still have a special place, because there we get to see Christ’s life narrated – thus better access to his personality, character, embodied engagement with others, his message literally enfleshed and embodied. I just wouldn’t want to push the difference too far.

In a future post, I will discuss the merits and potential drawbacks of a ‘Christ-centred’ hermeneutic. (I generally support it, but the devil is in the details!)

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Avery Cardinal Dulles on theological dissent in the Catholic Church

“While admitting that candid exposition of honest difficulties can be an impulse to constructive dialogue, the CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] instruction goes on to state that certain kinds of opposition are harmful to the church as a community of trust and faith. Theologians, according to the instruction, should refrain from giving “untimely public expression” to their divergent opinions and from presenting such opinions as though they were “non-arguable conclusions” (27). They should not give normative status to their own views, thus setting up a “parallel magisterium” of theologians (34). In particular, they should avoid turning to the mass media and seeking to mobilize public opinion to bring pressure on ecclesiastical authorities (30, 39).”
– Avery Dulles, Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 114.

I’m not a Catholic, and do not ultimately affirm the authority of any authoritative magesterium (though I recognize the precariousness of Protestant doctrines supposedly resting “on Scripture alone”), but I do admire the commitment to the kind of due process that honours the complexity of theological reformulation and refinement. In contrast, in theory, many evangelical churches could literally throw away or radically reform its teachings and beliefs on major matters in a single membership meeting, if enough votes are cast. Sociologically, this is unlikely, but without any real mechanisms of due process, such change is more likely to happen in a ‘drifting’, unintentional kind of way . . . as socio-cultural influences subtly shift unexamined presuppositions (whether poor ones or crucial ones) at a non-rational, sub-conscious level via ‘cultural liturgies’ (Smith), ‘social imaginaries’ (Taylor), embedded worldviews (Willard), ‘effective history’ (Gadamer), or ideologies (post-structuralists). We vote on what seems obvious to us (the ‘obvious’ teaching of Scripture, say, or the ‘obvious’ implications of what love requires), without noticing that our sense of the ‘obvious’ is anything but obvious or simply “there”. It is *formed*, shot through with assumptions, values, desires, expectations, and means of reasoning deeply shaped by our immediate social, cultural, and professional contexts.

In short, Protestantism lacks any *official* mechanism of due process for theological (and thus also moral) reform and refinement. I don’t think an authoritative Magisterium is the answer (it creates its own set of problems), but this should encourage us toward deeper and more intentional reflection, theological formation, dialogue/conversation, humility and patience, and ecclesial (‘covenantal’) commitment.

I found the comment on the use of mass media to mobilize public opinion (toward dissent) particularly provocative, given the pervasiveness of social media today, combined with problem of ‘celebrity culture’ within contemporary evangelicalism.

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Cone on Jesus’ Solidarity with the Oppressed

“In Christ, God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed.”

– James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power

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I Interpret the Bible LITERALLY! (sometimes)

Here is a short talk I gave a while back on whether or not we should interpret the Bible “literally” . . .

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Wilberforce on the Dangers of Wealth and Privilege to Genuine Christianity

I’ve been reading William Wilberforce’s book Real Christianity and have found it to be inspiring and instructive in many ways. I read this bit this morning, and was both encouraged and challenged: encouraged by the truth, beauty, and redemptive impact of genuine Christianity; challenged by Wilberforce’s comments on the potentially corrupting and deadening effects of a nominal Christianity that has become too accustomed to wealth and privilege.

I share it with you to ponder:

“Christianity especially has always thrived under persecution. For at such times it has no lukewarm professors. The Christian is then reminded that his Master’s kingdom is not of this world. When all on earth looks black, he looks up to heaven for consolation. Then he sees himself as a pilgrim and a stranger. For it is then as in the hour of death that he will examine well his foundations and cleave to the fundamentals.
But when religion is in a state of quiet and prosperity, the opposite effect tends to take place. . . . Religion in a state of prosperity is like a colony that has long settled in a strange country. It is gradually assimilated in features, demeanor and language to the native inhabitants, until at length every vestige of its distinctiveness has died away. . . .
Moreover, these efforts are further exaggerated when the country in question enjoys a free constitution of government. We have already had occasion to remark that a much looser state of morals commonly prevails among the higher ranks of society than among the middle or lower classes. But when the middle classes grow daily in wealth and substance by the success of their commercial enterprises, we can expect this loosening of morals to be extended.
The multiplication of large cities, and luxury within them, also contributes to the decline and morals. One must even confess that the spirit of commercialism does not favor the maintenance of the religious spirit in a virile and lively state.
In times like these, the strict precepts and self-denial habits of Christianity naturally slide into disuse.”

– William Wilberforce, Real Christianity: Discerning the True and False Faith, ed. James M. Houston (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1982), 98-100.

Of course, we could probe and push back and offer ‘balancing’ comments to nuance what Wilberforce is saying (of course, wealth does not always corrupt and persecution does not always lead to the flourishing of the church), but I think that would be to miss the import and contemporary timeliness of his warning.

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Science and Atonement Theology: A Response (part 2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A friend alerted me to a podcast series he’s doing on science and the atonement (i.e., on how recent scientific knowledge impacts, or ought to impact, traditional theories about the meaning and significance of Christ’s death on the cross). The Podcast is entitled Recovering Evangelicals and the specific episode I’ll be commenting on is #20: Atonement Theology: What Does Science Have to Say? You can listen to it HERE.

In a previous post, I discussed three ways the podcast episode resonated with me. In this post, I will offer some critical feedback on aspects that I think need refinement or perhaps reconsideration.

But first, a disclaimer:

This post turned out to be WAY longer than I had anticipated! 🙂  The issues addressed in the podcast are big and important ones, and I found myself being drawn to keep reflecting and writing. Important subject matter deserves careful attention!

So, before I get to providing some critical thoughts I had concerning the podcast, I want to reiterate how much I appreciated the discussion and resonated with its concerns. Please be sure to read my previous post before reading this one, so that what follows can be put into perspective.

I agree with Janssen and Blundell that there are real problems with the way atonement theology is popularly portrayed in evangelical subculture, and perhaps particularly how the penal substitution theory (PSA) is portrayed and prioritized. While I still believe that a revised version of PSA is warranted and important, I agree that the doctrine has been over-emphasized and often poorly and indiscriminately applied (and I agree that its Scriptural foundations are weaker that its advocates often claim).

O.K. Disclaimer finished. Let’s dig in . . .

Critical Questions & Concerns

  1. A Need for Greater Clarity and Depth

The podcast covers a lot of ground and raises many issues along the way. This makes it interesting and provocative, likely to pique the interests of various listeners. The downside to this kind of discussion is that it sometimes leads to confusion and over-generalization. To evaluate the arguments and views put forward, one must first disentangle and separate individual topics, examine them in depth, unpack their own inner-logic, consider various interpretations and approaches, and then begin to put the pieces together.

For example, early in the podcast, there is a conflation of atonement (the meaning and significance of Christ’s saving work, especially his death) with issues concerning the scope of salvation (Who are the people that are saved?) and the nature and form of divine judgment (How does God respond to sin? What does the final judgment entail? Existence, nature, and duration of hell, purgatory, etc.). These three theological themes tend to be lumped together, but they should be treated separately, because each is complex and subject to multiple interpretations and each can be combined with the other two in different ways. For example, Karl Barth seems to adopt a version of the penal substitution theory (in Church Dogmatics when discussing “The Judge Judged in Our Place”), yet his doctrine of salvation is radically inclusive (many would even say universalist).

Another issue that needs to be untangled and explored in more depth is the relationship between original sin (or different conceptions of it) and atonement. The hosts seem to assume that the truthfulness of various atonement theories hinge on whether or not they depend on a historical Adam and a biological notion of inherited sin. Without getting into the debate over the historicity of Adam (or the various proposals for a historical scenario amongst biblical scholars and theologians who accept evolution), I think this assumption can be challenged on two fronts.

First, some theologians hold to a historical Adam but not to inherited sin in a biological sense. Second, and I think more importantly, the atonement theories in question could be constructed without direct reference to original sin. Take penal substitution, for example. (By the way, my intention is not to defend that doctrine here, but explore it because the podcast mentions it). Rather than building upon Genesis 2-3, the doctrine could be constructed by simply asking and answering the following questions: (i) Do all human beings commit sin? (Scripture and experience indicate “Yes”); (ii) Does God condemn and punish sin? (This question is more controversial, but a reasonable argument could be made from Scripture that God does); (iii) Does the atoning death of Christ address this problem? (Again, arguably, “Yes”); (iv) if so, what images and metaphors from Scripture and experience (our contexts) can we employ to illustrate Christ’s work in this respect? We could also raise a related but separate question: How did sin and evil enter the world? Here is where some version of ‘original’ sin might get invoked, as admittedly a more speculative kind of answer that Scripture only hints at providing (Scripture is much more interested in describing sin’s nature, effects, and remedies than explaining its origin in historical or scientific terms).

  1. Biblical Terms, Exegesis, and Hermeneutics

Early in the podcast, a lexical observation is made about the term ‘sin’ in the Old Testament, pointing out that the English word ‘sin’ is used to render a Hebrew word that most commonly means something like “missing the mark” (like when shooting an arrow). While this is true, the conclusion that other connotations of sin are not present (e.g., things like breaking the law, offense, transgression, or incurring a debt, having a disease, and so forth) does not follow. Anthony Thiselton* observes that there is a threefold sense to the word ‘sin’ in the OT. “Missing the mark” is indeed the most common basic meaning (Hebrew word chāṭāʾ), but part of the reason for this is that the metaphor is somewhat vague and can be rendered in various ways depending on context. For example, it is used in the sense of “straying from the commands of the Lord” in Leviticus 4-5. In Numbers 5:22-51, it is distinguished from defiant sin, and so suggests careless or unintentional sin as opposed to “high handed” sin. It is often associated with defilement. A second common Hebrew word for ‘sin’ (pāshaʿ) carries the sense of ‘rebellion’, ‘offense’, ‘revolt’, ‘becoming alienated’, or a ‘breach in relationship’. It can also carry the sense of ‘transgression’. It is used not just in relationship to God, but also to refer to breaches in political alliance, social relations, and interpersonal friendships (and thus can be rendered ‘treachery’, ‘betrayal of loyalty’). The third common Hebrew word (’āwen) refers to the condition resulting from pāshaʿ: ‘iniquity’, ‘wickedness’, ‘perversion’, ‘deception’, ‘distortion’.

The New Testament uses a number of words to describe human sinfulness, including ‘lawlessness’ (anoimia), ‘impurity’ (akatharsia), ‘impiety’ (asebeia), ‘injustice’ (adikia), error (planē), ‘disobedience’ (paraptōma), ‘transgression’ (parabasis), and also ‘sin’ as missing the mark, erring, wandering from the path of righteousness or from God (harmartia).

But we have to look further, beyond word occurrences alone, because sometimes an idea or meaning can be present even though the usual term for it is missing. For example, the NT book of 1 Peter never uses the Greek word for ‘church’ (ecclesia), but it would be a mistake to conclude that the book is therefore irrelevant for ecclesiology (theology of church). In fact, the book has much to say about the church, but tends to use familial language (brothers, sisters, children, etc.) as well as OT language drawn from priestly material (i.e., people of God, God’s special possession, holy priesthood, royal nation, etc.). Similarly, there are many passages that speak to the meaning, nature, effects, and patterns of sin without referring explicitly to the word. For example, carefully reading and pondering Genesis 3-11 as a narrative reveals the brutal consequences of sin (with the Flood in the middle depicting the cosmic undoing of Creation) much better and more poignantly (and fittingly) than simply looking at verses within that narrative where the word ‘sin’ occurs.

Another way to consider the meaning of sin in the Bible is to notice the titles and terms applied to Christ and his saving work. What we find is that Christ’s saving work is portrayed in comprehensive terms, which implies that the sin (and its effects) which he saves us from has impacted us comprehensively (though the power and efficacy of God’s grace and salvation far outweigh the power of sin). Christ is High Priest and Perfect Sacrifice, Healer, Reconciler, Second Adam/Israel/Humanity, Conquering Davidic King, Sin Offering, Moral Teacher and Light, Husband of his Bride, his life a Ransom, etc. Thus, sin is implicitly depicted as a stain or impurity, disease, alienation and disunion, dehumanizing, bondage to evil or oppressive forces, incurring guilt, moral confusion and distortion (or walking in darkness), adultery or unfaithfulness, indebtedness, etc. In addition, the New Testament explicitly associates sin with breaking the Law (e.g., 1 John 3:4) and so falling under its curse, and points to Christ as the one who fulfilled the Law (e.g., Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3: 13; Heb. 10:1) and cancelled its curse.

* See Anthony C. Thiselton, “Sin,” in The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 769–81.

    1. Is the Moral Exemplar Theory Sufficient?

In light the above reflections on Christ’s saving work and what it implies about sin, another question surfaces. Does the moral exemplar theory provide a sufficient account of the meaning and significance of Christ’s atoning death, as Janssen and Blundell suggest? I don’t think that it does. Necessary, absolutely! The Cross is not just an important historical event, or a symbol of rich spiritual meaning; it is also a way of life and a pattern of discipleship. The Christian life is a cruciform life, a path or way of self-denial, devotion to God, service to others, sacrificial giving of one’s own privilege and resources, . . . in short, mortification (death to self and ‘the world’) and new life oriented to God’s present-yet-coming kingdom. If our exclusive focus is on atonement models that deal with the individual before God (or some part of the individual – her/his guilt, shame, personal impiety, etc.), we could potentially create a rift between ‘being saved’ and ‘being a disciple/follower of Jesus’, between being justified and pursuing holistic sanctification and Christ-likeness, between caring for the body and caring for the soul, between the individual and social implications of the gospel.

But I’d argue that the moral exemplar theory, while necessary, is by itself insufficient to account for the wholeness or comprehensive nature of Christ’s saving work. In fact, by itself, it seems to leave most of the actual saving work to us. Christ does not actually save us, he merely shows us the way to salvation. Christ is priest, but not sacrifice. Christ points us to self-care and human remedies, but does not directly heal. Christ preaches reconciliation, but he cannot (as example only) accomplish the reconciliation of all things in his own body and blood (Col 1:20-22). Christ cheers us on to achieve victory over evil and oppression, but he is not himself the victorious champion who has definitively defeated these. He shows us how to pay our debts, but is not himself our ransom. And so forth.

I don’t think this is what Janssen and Blundell are proposing, but it seems to me to be the consequence of promoting the moral exemplar theory over-against the other atonement models. In short, reducing the scope of Christ’s saving work has implications for how we understand Christ’s identity (in Christology, the Person and Work of Christ are intimately connected and mutually informing).

There seems also to be reticence to acknowledge the ‘negative’ aspects of the atonement, that in addition to being an act of love that demonstrates God’s grace, mercy, and compassion Christ’s death is also an act of judgment that demonstrates God’s righteousness, justice, and opposition to evil. I’m left wondering how these aspects of God’s character and action fit into the atonement in Janssen and Blundell’s thinking.

I understand the reaction against tendencies in some evangelical church circles to put too much emphasis on human guilt and God’s wrath and judgment against it. But for some, especially the poor and marginalized, God’s condemnation of and opposition to injustice and oppression is good news. A line I read recently from African-American theologian James Cone really bring this home:

“A God without wrath does not plan to do too much liberating . . . . A God minus wrath seems to be a God who is basically not against anybody. All we have to do is behave nicely, and everything will work out alright” [Cone goes on to ask why he, an oppressed black man, would want to worship a God like that?]

(James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation; NY: Lippincott, p. 131).

This brings me to a final thought about atonement theologies. All atonement theologies are contextual in nature. They all pick up on ideas, images, metaphors, and patterns about the saving work of Christ in Scripture (some more pervasive and central, some less so) and attempt to make these meaningful and impactful within a particular historical context. When traditionalists forget this, they sometimes fail to revise, correct, and update the theological model and thus apply it unfittingly without sensitivity to the context (like applying a sound solution to the wrong problem, an approved medicine to the wrong condition). When revisionists forget this, they can tend to pass judgment on traditional views in an anachronistic way and fail to retain important concerns and truths which they addressed (throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water).

The sinful state that hurts and distorts the human condition is something comprehensive, affecting us to the core of our being and manifesting in a wide variety of ways, though not all at the same time, at the same place, and to the same extent. Christ’s atoning work must be at least equally comprehensive (in fact, it is much more so) to address all aspects of the human condition and provide good news to all. For that reason, to bear sufficient witness to his Person and Work, we need all of the traditional atonement theologies, and inevitably new, constructive ones too, as we serve God’s mission and reach and serve people with our proclamations and our actions.

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Science and Atonement Theology: A Response (Part 1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A friend alerted me to a podcast series he’s doing on science and the atonement (i.e., on how recent scientific knowledge impacts, or ought to impact, traditional theories about the meaning and significance of Christ’s death on the cross). Today and tomorrow, I will post a response to the podcast, first discussing points of resonance and then raising a few critical questions and friendly push-backs.

The Podcast is entitled Recovering Evangelicals and the specific episode I’ll be commenting on is #20: Atonement Theology: What Does Science Have to Say? You can listen to it HERE.

See my previous post for an introduction to the podcast and its hosts, Dr. Luke Janssen and Dr. Boyd Blundell.

Let’s dig in!

KEY ISSUES

I won’t attempt to summarize the whole podcast, just highlight a few things that interested me and have provided an occasion for theological reflection. The episode is entitled “Atonement Theology: What Does Science Have to Say?” Part of the episode’s focus is on how contemporary science (evolutionary theory in particular) exposes problems in several traditional atonement theories, especially those that (seemingly) require a belief in Adam and Eve as real historical people (more than this though: in such traditional views, Adam and Eve were the first two humans to appear on earth and all living human beings are their biological descendants). I will offer a few comments on this, but my response posts will not focus on the historicity of Adam and Eve. That’s a big enough issue in its own right, and my focus will be more on atonement theology.

Scientific knowledge is not the only concern guiding the podcast hosts, however. They also have ethical concerns with certain traditional atonement theories, feeling that they make God out to be less than gracious and loving, and perhaps even vindictive and mean. In particular, concerns and criticisms are raised against the penal substitution model of the atonement. In this view, human beings have sinned and broken the law of God, thus creating separation from God and incurring the just judgment of God. Human beings are found to be guilty and are sentenced to death. Note that the pairing of sin and death is common to several atonement theories, and a connection that is clear and frequent in Scripture as well. What is unique to the penal theory is that death is more specifically a punishment for sin (rather than simply an effect or outcome) because God’s justice requires satisfaction. Then comes the substitutionary aspect of the theory: Jesus comes on our behalf to stand in our place, assume our guilt (through legal or forensic imputation), and suffer our punishment. This is God’s loving and gracious solution (“For God so loved the world that he sent his Son . . .” John 3:16), by which he expresses and demonstrates his love for us without violating his own requirements for justice. That’s the penal theory in a nutshell (I’ve relied on Peter Schmiechen’s concise summary of it – see p. 104). And Janssen and Blundell are not alone in criticizing it, as I’ll note below.

AFFIRMATIONS

1. The Importance of Questioning and (potentially) Revising Our Beliefs

Let me begin by saying that I resonate very much with the podcast’s raising and probing big theological questions. Genuine theology has always been contextual theology, in the sense that it has always wrestled with how to respond and adapt to contemporary questions and concerns raised within its lived historical settings. The project of rethinking and reformulating atonement theology is a good example of this. Throughout history, there have been numerous strategies of articulating the nature and significance of Christ’s death on the Cross in a way that makes sense to people in particular historical and cultural contexts (for example, this book surveys and outlines the internal logic of 10 prominent approaches to atonement, with attention to historical context). Genuine theology does not simply repeat past doctrinal statements or regurgitate past theological formulae. It seeks rather to learn from the past in order to speak meaningfully into the present.

The podcast hosts are especially concerned to take present scientific knowledge into account when thinking about theological questions. I applaud this. This world is God’s creation, and God has given us the capacity (the responsibility, even) to gain reliable knowledge about it. Scientific knowledge can help correct and refine our reading of Scripture and Christian Tradition in important (though limited) ways, as the history of interpretation clearly attests. As many theologians and scientists have said, God has written two ‘books’, the book of Scripture and the ‘book’ of nature; these books should be read together.

Having said this, the task of relating theology and science, and Scripture and nature, is not simple or easy. It is fraught with questions and problems epistemological (how we come to know things in different fields), hermeneutical (how we interpret texts, experience, data), exegetical (what method we apply to each passage of Scripture), and contextual/historical (are our questions, concerns, purposes, and contexts analogous to those of others who lived generations before us, or not?). There is no ONE WAY to relate theology and science, but several ways – each relying on particular presuppositions and attending to particular primary concerns. So, while I applaud the effort to articulate a theology that is ‘scientifically’ informed, I also think the outcome of one’s efforts to do this is complicated and not easily reducible to one possibility.

2. The Rejection of Crude, Cliché, and Corrupt Depictions of the Atonement

Theology always faces a conundrum when it seeks to express itself in ways that are meaningful, relevant, and accessible to a popular (non-specialist) audience. On the one hand, it must do so, because by nature theology is done ultimately not for the academy but for the church and by the church. It sometimes has to climb a “ladder of abstraction” in order to engage and explore issues in depth (and so, it must engage discussions in philosophy, science, the arts and humanities, etc.); yet it’s goal is practical and concrete: to instruct, edify, and sometimes offer critical feedback to the church. To do this, it has to summarize and simplify its discourse, in order to offer its insights in language forms that are succinct, memorable, understandable, relatable, and interesting (maybe even attention-grabbing). Thus, it relies on images, metaphors, summary statements and formulas (like tweets) to get the point across in a relevant way. This is inevitable, but also limiting, and even – over time – distorting. This is why we have to pay such careful attention to the details of historical context when we study theological formulations of the past. Otherwise, we end up trading in lifeless formulas and clichés and applying them unfittingly to contemporary situations. Sometimes we find that traditional approaches to expressing theological truth are no longer helpful, at least in the context we currently face.

The Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement (PSA) is a good example of a theological model (one way of depicting the nature and significance of Christ’s death) that many are questioning and criticizing today. There is no question that popular depictions of PSA have become cliché and that sometimes (perhaps often in evangelical circles) a version of PSA is simply equated with the gospel. For example, many ‘gospel’ tracts are actually a version of PSA turned into a method of evangelism. This is unfortunate because, as Scot McKnight has helpfully shown, it confuses the central message of the good news about Jesus and his Kingdom with theory (one among many) about (the mechanics of) how one gets saved. Atonement theories are important and necessary, but they are not the centre of the gospel message (they help us reflect on the significance and effects of what the gospel proclaims). Further, with respect to PSA in particular, many biblical scholars have raised exegetical questions about the model (e.g., does it inappropriately conflate diverse biblical metaphors and frameworks, such as priestly/sacrificial, punitive, and forensic categories?) and theologians and ethicists have raised theological and moral questions about it (e.g., does it divide the persons of the Trinity? Does it promote ‘divine child abuse’? Does it increase injustice by having an innocent man punished? Does it promote ‘redemptive violence’?). Janssen and Blundell are right to raise such questions, especially with respect to popular (and unfortunately, frequent) portrayals of PSA. I applaud their attention to the ethical implications of theological teachings; failing to do this leads to bad theology.

On the other hand, we need to distinguish between popular and more insightful articulations of PSA, the cliché versions from the more sophisticated ones. For example, it’s not clear to me that the objections and criticisms mentioned above apply well to Hans Boersma’s version of PSA (or Karl Barth’s, for that matter). Also, whatever potential problems the model might have (esp. when taken in isolation from other models as a kind of totalizing explanation), we should ask whether there are legitimate and important theological truths it nevertheless communicates. For example, as far as I can tell, PSA is the only atonement model that addresses the problem of objective human guilt before God and the possibility of divine punishment. Unless we don’t think such guilt is a problem, without PSA we’d be left wondering why the death of Christ does not address this aspect of fallen human existence. Why everything except this? Might a complete rejection of PSA reveal an over-reaction to Christian communities that are legalistic and fixated on human guilt? Or contexts that over-emphasize PSA such that it comes to over-determine the application of the gospel message? No doubt, the doctrine has been misapplied and over-applied. Might it be appropriate and relevant, though, to someone who has committed a horrible or violent crime, for example? We don’t want to tell that person, “God is loving, therefore your sin isn’t a big deal.” That’s neither truthful nor actually redemptive (for the perpetrator or the victim). We may well need something like PSA to talk about the freedom Christ’s saving work can bring in that context.

But what about its viability, from a scientific point of view? Janssen and Blundell suggest that PSA (along with several other atonement models depending on ‘original sin’ for their coherence) is no longer viable, in light of what we now know about human origins. In particular, scientific evidence rules out the possibility that all human beings descended (genetically that is, not genealogically) from a single, original human couple. (Put simply, our genetic diversity is too great for that to hold). In addition, from a scientific perspective, it is highly unlikely that human beings ever existed in an idyllic state of perfection, a time when there was no physical death, for instance. Thus, it seems impossible to explain (a) how a ‘sinful’ nature could have been passed down to us, inherited from Adam and Eve biologically; and (b) the historicity of a “fall” from perfection in the first place.

I think these are important questions (I’ve wondered about them too), and they do raise problems for certain constructions of original sin and of atonement models that seek to address it, including PSA. However, I don’t think that either of these depend necessarily on the kinds of assumptions the podcast attributes to them (i.e., about human origins, the mechanism of transmission of sin, etc.). Let’s assume for a minute, for the sake of a thought experiment, that the events recorded in Genesis 3 are not historical. This does not necessarily mean that they are ‘untrue’, just that they depict theological or spiritual truths by means of a narrative packed with metaphors and symbols (like many of Jesus’s parables, for example). Even in this case, we would still need to articulate a theology that accounts for the universality of human sin on the one hand, yet avoids attributing the origin of evil to God on the other. We could read Genesis 3 as an existential, revelatory, and paradigmatic theological depiction of the nature and consequences of human sin. With such a reading, we could still speak of ‘original sin’ (and of Christ’s death overcoming it), but focus on the existential realities the doctrine describes rather than expecting it to provide a scientific or historical explanation. As Anthony Thiselton puts it, “So-called original sin is better expressed as humankind’s being ‘under the power of sin’ (Rom. 3:9) than any genetic theory” (The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015, p. 772). I like how Ted Peters (a theologian deeply conversant with science) has put this:

“Despite these criticisms [re. science & historicity], I believe theologians need a concept such as original sin to account for the human experience it articulates. Evil comes to us and we sin—these are basic elements of human experience and are symbolized in the story of Adam and Eve, who represent everyone. Sin is universally human. The idea of original sin is an attempt to provide a workable concept of this universal phenomenon. . . . The metaphor of disease and the story of sin’s history from Eden to the present are theological constructs that create a problem only when one takes them more literally than they are intended.”

(Ted Peters, God—The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000, p. 177).

3. PSA Makes the Coming of Christ Seem Like God’s “Plan B”

I resonate with this concern, not only with respect to PSA but as it relates to ways of framing Christian salvation more broadly. I think it is a mistake to think of Christ’s coming to dwell amongst us as being necessary only because of human sin. I don’t believe that Christ’s human existence – incarnation, life, teachings, actions, death, resurrection, and ascension – are simply God’s “Plan B.” Given the reality of human sin, these all take on “Plan B” kinds of dimensions; but I think as responses to sin these operate more like an excurses or ‘alternate route’ worked into “Plan A”, which – in broad strokes – is the goal of union with God through Christ in the Spirit. In other words, all of these events take on additional meaning given human sin; yet they are not primarily a reaction grounded exclusively or even primarily in the givenness of sin. As the early church Father Athanasius once said, we were created in a state of corruptibility (which is not to say ‘corruption’), but destined – by grace following from partaking in the Word [i.e., union with Christ] – to attain to incorruptibility . . . had we remained good (On the Incarnation of the Word 5.1). In light of this, we need to construct atonement theology (and soteriology – or salvation theology) within a larger, more comprehensive theological vision of God’s eschatological (future-oriented) purposes and plans, God’s love and compassion and hope and aspirations for human beings and for creation . . . which have guided God’s creative and redemptive activity from the beginning (and before).**

From within such a perspective, I believe that it is possible to construct a doctrine of ‘original sin’ as a fall from an originally intended trajectory, rather than from a state of original perfection (and ‘original’ in the sense of universal and existential, like a primeval myth depicting real theological truth – ‘true myth’ as C. S. Lewis put it, rather than a particular point in history recounting sequential, identifiable events). Such an approach would be compatible with contemporary science regarding human origins (i.e., evolution).

This is a HUGE topic of discussion, requiring much more than a brief blog response. I’ll leave expanding on this issue for a future post!

[**In 2014, I published an article [linked here] outlining a theological framework for this kind of trajectory approach. Of course, much more work remains to be done and my thinking continues to . . . excuse the pun . . . evolve.]

 

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Science and Atonement Theology

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A friend recently tagged me on FaceBook to alert me of a podcast series he’s doing on science and the atonement (i.e., on how recent scientific knowledge impacts, or ought to impact, traditional theories about the meaning and significance of Christ’s death on the cross). Rather than responding on FB (such a limited platform!), I’ve decided to offer some brief reflections here.

I’ll categorize my reflections into two sections. In the first (to be posted tomorrow), I’ll offer affirmations of where I resonate with the podcast discussion; in the second (to be posted on Wednesday), I’ll offer critical comments on issues I think need further discussion and refinement. The latter comments are offered not in the spirit of argument, but of dialogue and mutual truth seeking.

First, a word about the Podcast and its audience, which is important for context. The name of the Podcast is Recovering Evangelicals, and as its title suggests the primary audience in view is comprised of people with an evangelical church background who are wrestling with aspects of their faith (particularly intellectual challenges, but ethical challenges as well such as moral failures in beliefs and actions observed or experienced in ‘evangelical’* settings).

The hosts of the podcast are Luke Janssen (MSc, PhD, MTS), a professor in the Department of Medicine at McMaster University, and Boyd Blundell (MA, PhD), an ethicist and consultant who formerly taught at Loyola University New Orleans. I think this context is important, in at least a couple of ways. First, the podcast is not trying to construct an airtight systematic theology, but to raise and explore questions in an exploratory way. Neither of the hosts are theologians (properly speaking), but both have studied theology at the graduate level. Second, the podcast seeks to come alongside those with an evangelical faith background who are troubled by certain doubts, questions, and experiences concerning that background. Not everyone will find the issues addressed equally problematic or concerning. This will largely depend on each listener’s personal experiences of ‘evangelicalism,’ which is a diverse movement, especially when considered cross-culturally and globally.

The meaning and significance of Christ’s death are central to the Christian Faith, so questions concerning the atonement are really important. I always appreciate opportunities to reflect on these issues.

You can listen to the podcast episode here.

[* I have placed an asterisk next to the word ‘evangelical’ above because the meaning of the term and the group(s) and individuals to which it applies is presently a matter of confusion and debate.]

 

 

 

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ASA Video on Covid-19 Now Up

The video for this event is now up on YouTube. HERE is the link. It features John Pohl, MD, on a physician’s report and response, and yours truly giving a theological response. As part of that, I talk about my health crisis and journey back to life in the past year.

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