Monday, October 31, 2016

Some Theses on the Church in North America Today (9)

9.    Two matters continue to divide the church which in my opinion should not. One is “the devil” and the other is the “virginal conception” of Jesus. Not the “virgin birth” as it is usually styled. Jesus’ birth was the same as any other baby ever born. The Bible is clear that it is his conception that distinguishes him for all other babies. But let’s look at the devil first.

C. S. Lewis famously said that making too much or too little of the devil are equal and opposite errors we should avoid. What the Bible says, which is what we need to stick to in heeding Lewis’ counsel, is basically that God has some intentional, intelligent, and crafty opposition in the cosmos from a supra-human cohort of rebellious creatures who resist serving him. At the head of this cohort is a figure called (the) Satan or the devil, apparently the chief and leader of these rebels. This figure develops from Old Testament to New from a member of God’s heavenly council who task is to test the genuineness of human’s faith to an adversary of God’s people seeking their destruction. The crafty serpent of Gen.3 morphs into the devilish dragon of Rev.12. It is clear from scripture that


a.    these realities are creatures, not on equal footing with God. The universe is NOT divided into two realms – the good controlled by God and the evil controlled by the devil.

b.    Their revolt, then, is ultimately foolish and futile. They will lose. What’s more, they will come to realize that in unimaginable and inscrutable ways God has used their rebellion, against their will and intention, to advance his own purposes.

c.    As created realities, under the ultimate will and dominion of God and defeated  by the cross and resurrection of Jesus, they have no power over us save that which we allow them. We cannot say, “The devil made me do it.”

Though some persist in denying that there is anything other than human will and perversion at work in the world, most of us, I suspect, at least sense there is more going on than that. I can’t prove that, of course. But I do think it is intriguing that many social scientists have discerned forces that shape human behavior that drives them to use language functionally similar to this Christian concept.

The real problem, of course, is how we interpret such a concept in our contemporary world which largely rejects and trivializes the whole idea. In particular, Is belief in a literal devil figure a “litmus test” for faithfully interpreting the Bible? Is the failure to do so regard this concept an infallible sign one has left the faith and is on a “slippery slope” to denying other vital teachings as well? I would say No and encourage all Christians to allow one another latitude in this matter for the following reasons:

d.    The figure of the devil and the devilish serpent are symbolic of this evil intelligent opposition to God in his world. As a symbol it surely does not require us to take it literally. Indeed, its symbolic quality more likely suggests otherwise. How we render this symbol, then, is less important than what it means.

e.    That meaning, that there is an active, intelligent center of evil in the creation that, though defeated, still flails around in its death throes, seeking to undo God’s people and purposes, is, as far as I can see, the non-negotiable truth of this matter. To fail to grasp this is to fail to engage a vital part of Christian mission in the world and underestimate the challenge we face.

f.     So I conclude that whoever affirms (e) is on the side of biblical truth whether they affirm a devil figure or maintain that what we face are forces or powers. That we force such a reality and are called to stand against it with the “full armor” of God is what the Bible requires of us.

There’s much more to be said on all this, of course. But I hope I’ve said enough to allow Christians to give one another the latitude to belief what they will about how to best conceptualize “the devil” and band together and bend all our efforts and energies to combatting its baleful influence. In the next post I’ll take up the virginal conception of Jesus.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (5)

Ch.5: “In All the Scriptures”

          What story does Jesus’ work in rescuing humanity and restoring them to their original identity and vocation organically grow out of. The story of Israel grows out the story of the creator and his creation. The Old Testament ends without a clear resolution to the dilemmas and troubles encountered along the way.

          Exile is the summary name for these dilemmas and struggles. The big one is the deportation to Babylon in the 6th century b.c. But other smaller “exiles” punctuate the story leading up to this one.

                    -Abraham goes down to Egypt and gets in difficulty

                    -Isaac follows suit.

-Jacob has to flee to live with his uncle for fourteen years before coming home.

-Jacob’s family flees a famine to Egypt and stays, enslaved there for 400 years till Exodus.

                    -David has to flee internal insurrection during his kingship.

-In the divided kingdom, the north is carried off by the Assyrians in 722 b.c. and the south follows suit at the hands of the Babylonians in the early 6th century.

-Even after the return from Babylon and rebuilding of the city and the temple, Israel lives under the heel of foreign oppressors and continue to believe they are still in exile.

          This is the story line in which the gospel writers interpret the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Messiah. If we try to read his story as part of another story line we will necessarily misinterpret it as well as the metaphors the New Testament uses to describe his death. We have done this in the west by platonizing the world view, moralizing our understanding of what it means to be human, and paganizing how salvation is accomplished.

          The key is to see that the Adam and Eve story deliberately parallels Israel’s story. Each interprets the other. Abraham is a new Adam and his family is to resolve the problems created by sin. The promised land is a new Eden. Thus the land is to be

                   -a place of life (contrasted with the “death” that comes out the garden).

                   -a place of God’s presence (as opposed to Eden now forbidden to humanity).

-an advance signpost pointing to something even greater (the whole earth will belong to God and his people and be filled with life and God’s glory).

          In both cases the people sin idolatrously and forfeit the life promised to them. This death is symbolized by Adam and Eve’s “exile” from the garden and this is meaning of Israel’s later exile as well. Nevertheless, somehow Israel’s prophets struggled with this reality and managed to hear from God a word of hope which they couched as a new Exodus.

Text Box: “In the story the Bible is telling, humans were created for a purpose, and Israel was called for a purpose, and the purpose was not simply ‘to keep the rules,’ ‘to be with God,’ or ‘to go to heaven,” as you might suppose from the innumerable books, sermons, hymn, and prayers. Humans were made to be image-bearers, to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator and to reflect the Creator’s wise and loving stewardship into the world. Israel was called to the royal priesthood, to worship God and reflect his rescuing wisdom into the world.” (99)         

What does sin mean in this story line? Biblical story line tells us Christ died “for our sins in accordance with the Bible.” What does this mean? The normal Greek word for “sin,” hamartia, means missing the mark. But what mark do we miss? Our created purpose to be God’s royal priests, God’s vision for our lives, the vocation to which we have been called. Wright sums it up:

“In the story the Bible is telling, humans were created for a purpose, and Israel was called for a purpose, and the purpose was not simply ‘to keep the rules,’ ‘to be with God,’ or ‘to go to heaven,” as you might suppose from the innumerable books, sermons, hymn, and prayers. Humans were made to be image-bearers, to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator and to reflect the Creator’s wise and loving stewardship into the world. Israel was called to the royal priesthood, to worship God and reflect his rescuing wisdom into the world.” (99

         Biblically, sin finds in foothold in a failure to worship. When we worship anything other than God we “miss the mark” of our creation and cede to those things we do worship the power and authority we should have exercised. If this is sin, then for God to reclaim and restore his creatures and advance toward his goal, sin must be dealt with. And that’s what the cross of Jesus is designed to do.  

         To treat sin simply as rule or commandment breaking trivializes this fearsome reality. “Don’t drink, smoke, cuss, or chew, or run around with those who do.” No, it’s our refusal to play our parts in God’s plan for creation is what is finally at stake here. This is made clear by the frequent linkage of death with sin. That’s what we’re dealing with.

         Exile links up here with sin and death because exile was considered a firm of national death. To undo exile as national death will require both “forgiveness of sins” and a restoration of the life-giving presence of God. A resurrection (Ez.37).

         Israel’s default on her calling (to correct what Adam and Eve fouled up) is a “radical deepening of the human plight” since Israel after Abraham and Sarah carry the world’s destiny with them. “Somehow, Israel’s sins must be dealt with so that the project of global restoration – including dealing with the sins of the world in general – can go forward.” (106)

         Divine forgiveness and return of the divine presence to Israel, the true return from exile, depends on Jesus’ work on the cross as we will see next.

Some Theses on the Church in North America Today (8)

8.    Talk of salvation as restoration to the genuine humanity God created us for raises the question of who God created us to be in the first place. Who we assume or think ourselves to be determines the kind of salvation we can envision God achieving for us. Our Western heritage of individualism, especially in the form we experience it today, has decisively shaped the salvation we believe we experience.

a.    We think of ourselves as “Billiard Balls.” Complete, self-sufficient, independent, we fancy ourselves moving through life as though around a billiard table. We make contact with other balls and the table rails which changes our direction but these contacts make no difference to who we essentially are.

b.    The Bible tells us, however, that God made us like molecules, a configuration of atoms connected by various sorts of relations. We are not complete, self-sufficient, or independent; rather we are who we are only in relation to God and others. Without these others we cannot become who God intends us to be.

c.    Sin is, in fact, just the illusion that we are and can be complete, self-sufficient, and independent, that we can by ourselves, for ourselves, and by our own power – and we should! Luther called this condition the heart “curved in on itself.”

d.    Salvation, for billiard balls, can only be thought an individual matter of each billiard ball turning to God and receiving grace and forgiveness. They become, then, “saved” complete, self-sufficient, and independent persons. They may now well care more for others than they did but not in a way that these others become part of their self-definition.

e.    God, however, saves us as molecules, in and with our relationships. He calls us to a body, a community, a sociality – the church. God created humanity to bear his image together.

So God created humankind in his image,
          in the image of God he created them;]
          male and female he created them.” (Gen.1:27)

As God created us so shall he save us. Together. As we were meant to be. As a city, the New Jerusalem, the bride of the Lamb.

f.     Until the church recovers the reality of our connection to each other (and, indeed, to all of creation) as God’s creatures our experience of salvation will be truncated, our ethics short-sighted, and our gospel increasingly incredible in a world that now knows we are all connected and what each does impacts everyone and everything else we live in a fantasy world that blasphemously favors the haves over the have-nots.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Some Theses on the Church in North America Today (7)

7.    Salvation can be rightly appreciated (and embodied!) only where the sin and disorder of creation and creatures are fully grasped (see #6).  “Far as the curse is found,” as the hymn writer puts it. Against the backdrop of cosmic disorder through sin God intends a cosmic salvation through Christ to put all things back as they should have been (that’s righteousness in biblical parlance; Col.1:20; Rom.8:18-30).

a.    Such salvation entails both reclamation and restoration. Through forgiveness we are reclaimed by God and restored to our primal dignity and vocation as God’s image-bearers, his royal priests in the temple of his creation.

b.    Unfortunately, we have tended to forget the restoration part and see salvation as only reclamation (personal forgiveness of sins and going to heaven as a consequence).

c.    Thus we think of ourselves and others as only forgiven sinners whereas the biblical story treats us as restored image-bearers who take up their rightful vocations again.

d.    And that vocation is serving as God’s royal representatives who reflect his character and will throughout creation and priests who guide and nurture the creation in its growth to full flourishing and voicing its voiceless praise of the creator.

e.    Even worse, we treat others only as sinners in need for forgiveness (which they are) instead of wayward image-bearers and royal priests who have forfeited their proper identity and vocation whom God wants to restore.

f.     Think of the difference it makes to think of those you meet as those God wants to restore and not just reclaim. You might reread the last section of C. S. Lewis’ great sermon “The Weight of Glory” to feel the power of this way of thinking. Our presentation of the gospel out to reflect this “wider” view of salvation. I’ll say more about that in later post on evangelism.

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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began:  Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (1)

Ch.1: A Vitally Important Scandal

The evocative and existential power of the symbol of the cross remains as potent as ever for believer and non-believer alike. Why is that?
This is the question N. T. Wright (NTW) proposes to treat in this book. Why do Christians consider this event, so scandalous in so many ways, the day the world changed forever and for its good? This question resists easy answers. But fortunately its power and reality do not depend on such answers, easy or otherwise. Yet it is a question and as such demands an answer (as best we can supply one). So NTW sets his hand to provide one.
He lays out an agenda for his answer at the close of the chapter (18). First, there’s the historical question (Why did Jesus get killed by Pilate at the insistence of the Jewish leaders?) followed closely by the theological (What did God intend this event to achieve?) question, both of which are inextricably intertwined. And then finally, and related to these two questions is a third – “What did Jesus think was going on in all this?”
These break down into other questions surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and others’ responses to it. Among them,
-what does “for our sins” mean?
-what would first century Jews have taken this phrase to mean?
-why do Christians consider it “good news”?
-how is it related to the “kingdom of God”?
-how could a man acclaimed as God’s king be crucified by a human empire?
The land to be traversed now laid out for us, let the journey begin!

Some Theses on the Church in North America Today (3)

3.    Church is first and always about Christ. “What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?”[1] And Bonhoeffer’s question must gnaw at us as well if we are to find our way to faithful witness in a world come of age.

a.    But what Christ? That’s always the question. Throughout his writings Bonhoeffer insists on the unity of Christ and his people. From his early concept of “Christ-existing-as-community” (Sanctorum Communio) to his final rendition of this idea as Jesus – the man for others with the correlate of the church as the “church for others” (Letters and Papers from Prison) the identity of the church replicates that of Jesus. He is the identity and DNA of the church in action! And in Discipleship he makes it unforgettably clear that relationship to Jesus, sharing and participating in his life, is the motive power of following him.

Bonhoeffer insists that following Jesus is a conflicted and even dangerous undertaking (as he himself proved with his life). The life of the church can be no different.

b.    Jesus Christ bears what Walter Brueggemann[2] terms the essential “disciplines of readiness” for those serving in God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement.

-DANGEROUS MEMORIES of God’s breathtaking promises to Abraham and Sarah and all that God had done to fulfil those promises (e.g. Exodus).

-DANGEROUS CRITICISM that mocks the deadly Empire in terms of religion, a critique of the tamed gods of the Empire (commercialized Christianity) and at the same time a political critique of entrenched power, wherever we find it.

-DANGEROUS PROMISES that imagine a new shape of power in the world, the kingdom of God. The poem of Isa.54:1-3 is first despairing, but then affirms a wild and outrageous hope.

-DANGEROUS SONGS that predict unexpected newness of life. We sing a new song and affirm a reality we have not fully experienced. Worship is a political statement.

-DANGEROUS BREAD that is reliable, abundant, and free of all imperial ovens. Scarcity thinking and practice occurs when we think the Empire controls all the resources.

-DANGEROUS DEPARTURES of heart and body and mind, leavings undertaken in trust and obedience. The Exodus from Egypt lead to Torah, God’s life-giving order for Israel and ultimately the world. Similarly, we need to imagine a time when we leave behind consumerism, ambition, and militarism for other territory.

-DANGEROUS ACKNOWLEDGEMENT of how life really is. Our God is good; but He is not safe. We sometimes cry out for the elusive Presence, and acknowledge like the early Apostle that we are “hungry and thirsty, homeless and ill-treated.”  We face the world with utter realism and extravagant hope at the same time.

c.    This is Jesus Christ. This is who and how he is in our world. His way of living ends up on a cross. That’s the way of God’s love in a world rebellious and hostile to God. Jesus’ call for us to live similarly is his call for us to take up our cross. Thus our lives will be cruciform. We will live by the “theology of the cross.” This is who Christ is for us today and who we are to be in the world as his SCRM.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. DBW 8: Kindle Locations 16433-16434.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 118ff.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Bible as a Fieldguide for God's Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement

In my continuing effort to rethink Christianity as God's Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement, I offer this take on the place and role of the Bible in this movement.


For God's SCRM the Bible is the sign, sacrament, and servant of God's self-revelation through Jesus Christ. And it is his self-revelation we are talking about – the presence of God himself as the One who has freely chosen to bind himself in relationship to this people so that they may be the people through whom God spreads his blessings to everyone else (Gen.12:1-3).

Entailed in the Bible's nature as sign, sacrament, and servant of God are functions such as:

-announcing the Vision of the Desirable Future that animates the SCRM/ the vision of God for creation

-narrating the Story of the Struggle with Visions of False Futures/ the story of humanity's rejecting that vision, and God's continuing passion and strategy for a pursuit of his rebellious human creatures and their communities

-highlighting the decisive turning point in this struggle/ the victory of God over the powers of sin, death, and (d)evil in Jesus Christ

-serving as a Field Manual of Operations for the SCRM/

-a history of some of the earliest development and growth of this movement (Acts)

-the equipping of his people to live and love as they were intended in witnessing to God's victory and participating in his guiding his creation and creatures to their full and final flourishing (narrative, gospels, prophecy, apocalyptic, challenges to the coherence of the whole movement (e.g. Ecclesiastes, Job and responses to meet and process these challenges (e.g. Psalms, Daniel)

-nurturing the Spirit-uality (spelled this way to remind us that Christianly considered this is a matter of the work of God’s Spirit not our own spirits) of the SCRM/the prayers of the Psalter