Friday, October 28, 2016

N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (4)

Ch 4: The Covenant of Vocation

           The Heaven and Hell scheme the reformers brought forward from the late Medieval church congeals into a “gospel” that Wright claims is:

-Platonized: accepts the material (earth) – spiritual (heaven) dualism and favors the latter over the former.

-Moralized: believes the “sin” and its punishment/forgiveness is the basic human problem.

-Paganized: the solution is seen as an angry deity who has to be pacified by human sacrifice.

        The biblical gospel, on the contrary, is about heaven and earth reunited in the new creation which will host God and humanity in living fellowship through the ages. The problem is not morality but idolatry. And the solution is a loving God who goes to the uttermost to reclaim and restore his lost creatures and creation.

        While some versions of reformed theology teach that God created a “covenant of works” with our first parents in the Garden in which humanity had a set of divine commands to follow upon perfect performance of which they would be accepted and approved by God, this is not the biblical picture. Rather, God established a “covenant of vocation” with humanity – being a genuine human and participating with God is pursuing the Creator’s purpose in the world.

        The human problem is idolatry rather than breaking commands, a breaking of relationship with God. “Humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and finally death” (77).

        By this idolatry we forfeit our true identity and vocation as God’s royal priests (that’s what being created in God’s “image” means). “We humans are called to stand at the intersection of heaven and earth, holding together in our hearts, our praises, and our urgent intercessions the loving wisdom of the creator God and the terrible torments of his battered globe” (80). But our default of this calling gave license to that which we gave our worship to exercise the rule and power we were supposed to have exercised against the plan and purpose of God. Thus the distortions and destruction of the creation.

        That Christ’s work of saving us involved not only reclaiming us from that into which we have fallen but even more importantly restores us to the genuine humanity and vocation for which we were created is the point of three major Pauline texts Wright discusses: 2 Cor.5:18-21; Gal.3:13; and Rom.5:17. We’ll look briefly at the latter text.

        Here’s Wright’s translation: “For if, by the trespass of one, death reigned through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace, and of the gift of covenant membership, of “being in the right,” reign in life through the one man, Jesus the Messiah.” Through Jesus Messiah we are restored to “covenant membership” (“justified”) and Paul tells us the effect of that is for us to “reign in life.” Not in the next life, then and there, but now, today, here and now. That, in biblical parlance, can only mean we are restored to the royal priesthood we were created for. And that, in turn, leads us to grasp that the sin Paul talks about in the earlier part of ch.5 must mean our default on the identity and vocation God created us for and exchanging that “glory” with other forces and powers in that idolatrous default. That brings us right back to Rom.1 where Paul rehearses the creation/fall story precisely in terms of this idolatrous exchange and the vulnerability we suffer to allowing “rogue elements” to enter and harm God’s world.
    The Greek word for “sin,” hamartia, means “missing the mark.” What’s the “mark”? A command or rule. No. It means missing the mark of our covenantal vocation through idolatry. Sins are symptoms of this idolatry. Wright sums it up like this:
“. . . humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected; that this rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols; that this results in giving to the idols – forces within the creation – a power over humans and the world that was rightfully that of genuine humans; and that this lead to a slavery, which is ultimately the rule of death itself, the corruption and destruction of the good world made by the creator.” (86)   

Some Theses on the Church in North America Today (6)

6.    After living, faithful relationships with the triune God, the church in North America, perhaps the next most important thing for us to come to terms with is what St. Paul calls “the principalities and powers” (or something close to that in his letters). These realities (whether one conceptualizes them as beings or forces or both is less important that acknowledging their reality) are neither demons or angels (fallen or otherwise). They seem to comprise a class of spiritual realities with a particular divine mandate. The “powers”

a.    are created by God (Col.1:16) to establish and sustain conditions for the flourishing of human life;
b.    have rebelled against God seeking to rule creation themselves distorting and destroying human life (Eph.6:12);
c.    were defeated by Christ on the cross (Col.2:15);
d.    are being pacified by Christ back to their created purpose through the life and ministry of the church (Eph.3:10-11; Col.1:20);
e.    that their futile but continued resistance to God’s will and way in the world is the focus of the church’s mission (Eph.3:10-11; 6:10-12).

This means we are not alone. God designed suprahuman realities to make and keep human life human. When they went wrong, however, those conditions and structures for human life were distorted and became dehumanizing and dangerous. Rebellious humanity became enslaved to these rogue powers and subject to the inhumane conditions and institutions that comprise life in a fallen world.

f.     Sin, then, is an alien power that has us in a death grip. Sins are the symptoms of our slavery to sin. Salvation is thus more than the forgiveness of personal sins but also Jesus’ breaking the power of sin’s death grip on us.
g.    It also means pacifying those defeated powers and beginning to put in place patterns and structures that reflect the freedom and care for others Jesus embodied and calls his people to embody as well.
h.    Sin is both personal and structural, needs both forgiveness and setting right, is found in both the bedroom and the boardroom and every sphere of life in between.
i.     The foes of the church as God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement are these spiritual powers still resisting (however futilely) God’s will and way. Not the human beings who continue to live under their sway and dominance. They are sin’s victims as much as those they victimize and need God’s forgiveness and reconciliation too.

j.     Recovering this awareness of the larger horizon of sin as woven into the warp and woof of life on all levels is crucial to the faithfulness of the church.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (3)

Ch.3: The Cross In Its First Century Setting

          The original ancient setting for considering the cross is the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity. The ethos of that world as defined by its great poets and story-tellers was wrath (Homer, The Illiad) and arms (Virgil, the Aeneid). Gods or humans, everyone and everything was implicated in these two realities.

          This is why that world executed certain people in the brutal and degrading way of crucifixion. IT was designed not simply to kill the criminal but to do so in a degrading fashion. As an example to break the spirit of any onlookers who might be contemplating actions of a treasonous or seditious nature. This assertion of sheer power carried the message of the futility of such actions. That crucifixion often left the condemned person hanging alive in torturous suffering begging for release brought the trifecta of degradation, show of power, and terror to its rousing climax. Though the Romans did not invent crucifixion they honed its practice to perfection.  

          Further, the power of a cross to mock anyone perceived to have social or political pretentions was extraordinary. “You think you’re high and mighty? Well, let us lift you up for the whole world to see!” And finally, the ultimate irony was the well-known ideology of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana, the “peace” the empire brought to its inhabitants, was based foursquare on the violence so exquisitely displayed by the cross.

          The question for us is how such a grotesque symbol as this came so quickly to be the chief symbol of the news called “good” of the Christian gospel.

                              Roman Cross                             Christian Cross    

Social: We are superior to you                 Everyone is equal here                    Political: We’re in charge here          God is in charge                        Religious: Caesar is Lord                             Jesus is Lord

          Within the ancient world there was a certain approbation of one person dying in the place of another. The Hebrew Bible contains little trace of this kind of thinking. Perhaps this played some role in the New Testament’s announcement that Christ died “for us.” Of course, the pagans saw such a death as noble. No one would have said that about a crucifixion.

          In the early Jewish world we find three things that play large roles in understanding the cross as the great Christian symbol of salvation.

-In the Jewish calendar the greatest festival was Passover, the freedom festival commemorating God’s deliverance of his people from oppression and slavery in Egypt. Jesus chose Passover for the climactic moment of his life and mission. Thus Passover became a key way of interpreting Jesus’ great act of deliverance in the New Testament.

-As evident in scriptures such as Dan.9 the exile continued on long past the return of the people from Babylon. Inasmuch as doscopic idolatry and sin had brought about the exile, any return would be premised on the forgiveness of sins. The Day of Atonement was the moment when the nation celebrated God’s forgiveness. Since Jews of Jesus time were longing for both a new Passover and the forgiveness of sins, a combining of these two otherwise unrelated matters seemed possible (see Jer.31-31-34).

Text Box: “There was no template of expectations out of which, granted the crucifixion of Jesus, one might have anticipated the sophisticated range of interpretation that the early Christian movement in fact produced, understanding the death of Jesus as a messianic victory and connecting it with the long awaited divine return. For that we must look elsewhere.” (65)  -Messianic hope, at Jesus’ time had no thought of a suffering messiah. Some expected a time of terrible suffering but not connected with any putative Messiah. Others picked up on thoughts like God returning in a new way to judge and redeem the world and his people but this was not connected to thought about a Messiah or a period of intense suffering.


        The New Testament itself provides a kaleidoscopic array of images and insights around our topic. It is not easy to give a coherent account of all of it. We find in it complex ways of reading the Old Testament scriptures, many events and incidents whose full meaning escapes us, the reality of “sacrifice that we still do not understand very well.

        Here’s sketch of NTW’s view that he will develop in the rest of the book.

-if we replace the default view of Christian hope (“going to heaven”) with the biblical view of new creation we will see the New Testament’s diagnosis of our problem and God’s solution quite differently.

-in the default version sin is what blocks us from going to heaven. In the biblical view it is primarily idolatry that hinders us and what is required is for the power of that idolatry over us to be broken. Sin is the consequence of idolatry so when the sin is dealt with through forgiveness the power of hold idolatry has on us is broken. We can thus begin to worship and live now as the creatures God meant us to be. Going to heaven has nothing to do with it.

-all this is focused in the Bible on Israel and particularly Jesus, Israel’s representative Messiah. As Israel’s stand-in he walks Israel’s path and gets it right, thus fulfilling God’s plan and purpose for his people.

        This concludes the first part of The Day the Revolution Began. Part 2 takes a closer look at the biblical material.

Ten Reasons Why Theology Matters

Most Christians Agree Theology Is Important, but Can't Articulate Why. These Reasons Can Help.

David W. Congdon and W. Travis McMaken/ October 27, 2016

With recent polls showing a declining awareness and interest in theology among evangelicals, we thought of ten reasons why theology matters to every evangelical beyond simply avoiding heresy.

Theology matters…
1. Because even evangelicals need evangelizing.
There is much handwringing today over what it means to be evangelical, and the temptation is strong to define an essential evangelicalism—to pin it down to one particular form. Theologically, the problem with this response is that “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) is not a once-and-done proposition. It is a task that has to be taken up anew again and again. Just like God’s grace, this fundamentally theological undertaking is “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23).
Evangelicalism is not a fixed and secure religious form or doctrinal system. It is not a confessional tradition or a denomination. Instead, evangelicalism is a way of relating to God and the world, one which emphasizes the good news of Jesus Christ and its importance for how we live our lives. There is no single right way to be an evangelical. In truth, evangelicalism is always in via, always “on the way.” Evangelicals thus always need to be evangelized.
2. Because we can’t feel our way toward knowledge of God.


Some Theses on the Church in North America Today (5)

5.    That brings us to the Holy Spirit, the most elusive yet important member of the trinity for us in North America. The Spirit has been called the “shy” member of the Godhead because his task is to keep our attention focused on Jesus and animate Jesus’ life in us. He is elusive in himself and in particular for us westerners, “can do” pragmatists, who prefer control and predictability. For the Spirit fundamentally means “out of control.” We know this from various expressions of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement. But even more importantly from the book of Acts where the Spirit instructs, guides, and countermands human plans and purposes. The church here desperately needs to recover the kind of relationship to the Spirit the early church had.

a.    That relationship is best described, I think, by Buzz Lightyear of “Toy Store” fame describing flying to Woody as “controlled falling.”

b.    The Spirit is animate, intimate charisma of the life of God restlessly and relentlessly prodding, wooing, and completing God’s work in us and our world.

c.    “The Holy Spirit is the living God, not some inert concept. The church community has to trust the Holy Spirit in every decision and believe strongly that the Spirit continues to be present in the community and at work in it. The Spirit will not permit our community to grope about to darkness, if only we are willing to take the Spirit’s teachings seriously…”[1]                                                             
d.    John V. Taylor aptly called the Spirit “the Go-Between God.” That’s the heart of the Spirit’s work, “going between” us and bringing us together in deeper forms of community.

[1] From Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermon for Whitsunday, 1940. Cited in The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, 51.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (2)

Ch.2: Wrestling with the Cross, Then and Now

          One of the chief claim NTW advances is that atonement must be congruent with eschatology. That is, the means (atonement) God uses must be congruent with the ends (eschatology) toward which he is working. How we conceive God’s goals determines how we will understand his works.

          Medieval Catholicism bought into an eschatology of individual salvation from sin and life with God in heaven forever. This its theory of penal substitutionary atonement was congruent with this eschatology.

          Luther and Calvin challenged the excesses that Medieval Catholicism developed but never challenged the Heaven-Hell schema that determined its eschatology nor the assumption that the cross had to do with pacifying God’s wrath. They could not, therefore, see the biblical eschatology of new creation growing out of Jesus’ resurrection and rethink atonement in its light.

          On into the Enlightenment and beyond, Wright claims, this unchallenged background become more and more the default understanding of the gospel. Unfortunately, this gospel was both unconcerned with the larger world beyond the individual (esp. the problem of evil) and was escapist in its view of what God’s ultimate purpose for us is.

          This view is inadequate to the biblical portrayal that the cross of Jesus does something, to all of us and everything. It changes the world. From noon to six pm on that first Good Friday, Wright says, the word became a different place and human beings are intended to be a part of that change. This is a wholly different eschatology. NTW puts it in a striking way: “The New Testament, with the story of Jesus’s crucifixion at its center, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven” (40).

          However, the Heaven and Hell scheme and salvation as going to heaven after death remains entrenched and creates the following difficulties:

-instead of God loves the world and gave his Son for it (Jn.3:16) this gospel is easily misheard as God hates the world and killed his Son for it.

-that God uses violence by killing Jesus on the cross.

          With the character of God as love thus compromised or put in question, the heart of the gospel is obscured or hidden. This is the crisis the “gospel” as we in the west have received it provokes.

          The good news is that this Heaven and Hell schema is not biblical. We can recover the biblical story if

          -we start with Eph.1:10 as the goal toward which God is working,

          -focus on the new creation God promised instead of a disembodied “heaven,”

          -embrace our true calling as God’s royal priesthood on his new creation,

          -thought through what living by the cross means in every area of life, and

          -interpret the cross in light of God’s promise of new creation.

Some theses on the Church in North America Today (4)

4.    We talk about “God” too much and “Jesus” too little. Christians don’t believe we know who or what God is and then fit Jesus into that that picture we have already fashioned from whatever other sources. No, on the contrary, Christians claim that we only know God through Jesus. Our most decisive and provocative claim is not about how “godlike” Jesus is, but about how “Jesus-like” God is.

a.    Much of our talk in church about “God” is simply ill-informed chatter that “no longer signifies” (Walker Percy).

b.    With the Barmen Declaration we must again strenuously assert: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

c.    “As he is attested for us in Holy Scripture” requires intentional and properly informed appropriation of Holy Scripture if we hope to learn to know Jesus Christ and, through him, God.

d.    We must let go of all conceptions of God not filtered through and redefined by the biblical portrayal of Christ. If we do not do this, our talk about “Jesus” is simply more ill-informed chatter.