God's justice

Monday, July 30, 2007

Last blog I talked about Romans 3 and the pivotal verse of Romans 3:25. This time I want to look at a key term that Paul uses in this passage: the Greek word δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosunē) which is translated as either "justice" or "righteousness".

Dikaiosunē is the same word the LXX uses to translate the Hebrew צדקה(t'sedeka) in the Old Testament which likewise can be translated either as righteousness or justice. Because the LXX was the official translation the New Testament authors used to quote from the Old Testament, it follows that Paul was thinking of t'sedeka justice in Romans when he used the word dikaiosunē . There are many words for justice in Hebrew, and among them t'sedeka justice refers specifically to setting things right. T'sedeka justice/righteousness is associated with acts of charity, and today Jewish charities are often named t'sedeka which has become synonemous with charity.

This understanding of restorative social justice was key to Martin Luther's breakthrough where he rediscovered the Gospel in Romans. Like everyone else he had been reading the Bible in Latin which for several hundred years had been the only translation available. The word for justice in Latin here is iustitio which is the word our own “justice” derives from. In Latin iustitio refers to a quid-pro-quo payback justice, so Luther (as many people today) had assumed that the passage in Romans 3 was about retributive justice. But in the original Greek, and especially considering Paul's own Jewish roots, this was not at all the sense of t'sedeka/dikaiosunē justice. Take a look at the passage, keeping in mind the meaning of dikaiosunē as restorative making-things-right justice.

"But now a dikaiosunē (loving restoration) from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify . This dikaiosunē (loving restoration) from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are dikaioō (set right) freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his dikaiosunē (loving restoration), because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his dikaiosunē (loving restoration) at the present time, so as to be dikaios(righteously loving) and the one who dikaioō (lovingly sets right) those who have faith in Jesus.

We can see that if the above is read (as it had been by Anselm and Aquinas and so many others in the latin church who did not have access to the original Greek) as iustitio retributive justice, that one can easily read into the above text the idea of penal substitution. Which is why Luther's discovery was so earth shaking. It completely revolutionized his understanding of what grace was about: t'sedeka/dikaiosunē justice.

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Romans 3:25

Sunday, July 29, 2007

One of the pivotal verses for penal substitution is Romans 3:25 "Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood" (Ro 3:25a KJV). Proponents of penal substitution take this to mean that God's wrath is turned aside because Jesus is punished in our place. I've posted earlier on the word translated here as propitiation in the King James. In this post we'll take a look at the passage in the context of Paul's line of argument in Romans, drawing a good deal on Martin Luther's thoughts as well. Let's back up to verse 21 (I'll switch over here to NIV just because it is more readable, feel free to follow along in any version you like):

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” (Ro 3:21 NIV)

As I outlined in a previous blog on Luther's Theology of the Cross, Alister McGrath talks about Luther's "turmerlebnis" where he rediscovered the Gospel of grace in Paul. Luther's discovery revolved around a revelation about the meaning of the term "righteousness of God" here. Luther had been taught to understand the righteousness of God in the punitive sense of a quid pro quo retributive justice which pays us what we deserve. This is the same assumption of penal substitution. Luther's breakthrough was when he discovered that the righteousness of God Paul speaks of here is not about retributive justice that metes out what we deserve judicially, but on that is “apart from law” where God justifies sinners. In other words, it is not a matter of God meting out punishment or reward, but God “making right”.

Let's return to our key verse Romans 3:25. The Greek word hilasterion here can be translated as either “expiate” (which implies cleansing sin) or “propitiate” (which implies appeasing wrath). C.H. Dodd famously argued that in pagan Greek literature the word hilasterion referred to placating an offended person, but that in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament that the writers of the New Testament used) hilasterion was used in the sense of purifying, canceling, cleansing, and forgiving sin. In other words, the focus was not on the sacrifice changing God's attitude through mollification, but on changing us by removing or cleansing our sin. As a result of Dodd's research, the Revised Standard Version translates Romans 3:25 as "whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood".

Leon Morris challenged Dodd's linguistic argument saying that the main thrust of Paul's argument up to that point in Romans had been focused on the problem of wrath, and so the solution outlined in Romans 3:25 had to present a solution to the problem of wrath. Morris is right of course that this is the thrust of Paul's argument, but this does not undo Dodd's observations about the meaning of the Hebrew sacrifices. So how can we put this all together? Let's read on in Romans 3:25, the verse continues,

...He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Ro 3:25b-26 NIV)

God had held back punishing of sin in order to demonstrate his justice. Throughout the Psalms and Prophets we hear people crying out to God things like “how long will you look upon evil? Help us in our oppression and save!”. God punishing evildoers was in that context seen as a good thing because it meant God defending you and punishing them. But Paul argues in Romans that this way of thinking is a death trap because we "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Ro 3:23), meaning here that sin is not a matter of us and them, we good people and those sinners over there, but that we all have been a part of the hurt. God held back that judgment we had cried out for because he wanted to reveal instead a righteousness that was apart from the law of reaping and sewing. Instead he wanted to break us out of the whole cycle of an eye for an eye. But how?

Following both Morris and Dodd's insights we can say that Paul is arguing that we all have played a part in hurt and injustice. But God held back the world of hurt that we had coming to us, and instead offered himself in Christ as a sacrifice that would cleanse us of the cancer of sin in us (Dodd's expiation). With the problem of sin removed from us through Christ, the just reason for wrath is also removed. God is not appeased in the sense of someone covering his eye's or gratifying his anger (as if God's anger was a fleshly rage), rather by solving the problem of sin in us, God has removed the cause of wrath and brought us into right relationship with him, as Paul says, "so that God is just and the one who justifies sinners" (sets them aright).



The NIV has the most accurate reading putting together first of all the sense of hilasterion being the translation of the Hebrew "kipper" referring to the mercy seat of the Arc, so that verse 25 reads "God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement", but in a footnote the NIV combines both the idea of expiation and propitiation together, blending both Morris and Dodd's insights into the idea of the Temple sacrifice, "as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin". With that in mind let's look at the whole passage. I'll use the NIV and substitute in the alternative reading in the footnote above. My comments are in parenthesis:

"But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify (a way to set us right different from the way of payback). This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (sin is not just in "them over there" but in all of us) , and are justified (set right) freely by his grace through the redemption (liberation out of slavery) that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin (note the pattern of removal of sin leading to wrath being turned) through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (In this we get the justice and help we have cried out for, not in a violent wrath on our enemies, but in all of us near and far being set right through God's sacrifice in Christ).

We can see this sense expressed very clearly in The Message. The above passage there reads:

"What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we've compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we're in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world to clear that world of sin. Having faith in him sets us in the clear. God decided on this course of action in full view of the public—to set the world in the clear with himself through the sacrifice of Jesus, finally taking care of the sins he had so patiently endured. This is not only clear, but it's now—this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness."

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Evil in us

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Adam recently asked this in the comment section of a blog on God's justice. I thought it was such a good question that I wanted to devote a blog post to it. Here's Adam's question:
I just finished reading your essay on penal substitution vs christus victor. I am very intrigued and I think you are putting into words some things that have been on my mind for a while. One thing I struggle with there and in this blog post is the idea that christus victor takes on a victim mentality to sin. I would really like to know how this view of atonement fits in with the idea that we do viciously choose to sin and are guilty, not just victims, of evil.

If God is out to fight evil then in a sense he is out to fight us since the fall corrupted us such that we have become evil ourselves. This is the one issue I am grappling with. I can understand how the cross works to free us from the oppression of evil, but not how it deals with the fact that I am evil.
I do think there is a tendency for people today (myself included) to see ourselves in terms of victims. This comes as a response to many people being wounded by self-destructive guilt and self-loathing. As a result we shake off this negative self-hatred, and instead see ourselves as broken. Christus Victor speaks to this self understanding. But at the same time there is a danger in us only using Christus Victor to echo the sentiment of our own time, rather than letting it speak to evil on a much broader scale, including the evil in us. If we have all been hurt, it stands to reason that we have also deeply hurt others. We need to own up to that, not out of self-loathing, but out of compassion for the hurt we have done to others which produces other-focused regret and remorse.

Christus Victor, as expressed by the early church stressed that we shared culpability in our captivity. This is expressed in the often misunderstood legal idea of humanity being enslaved to the devil. The point here Gustav Aulen argues was not (as Anselm had it) to say that the devil has any rights, but to stress humanity's own participation and guilt that led to its bondage. This echoes the Hebrew prophet's understanding that Israel was in Exile under the oppressive pagan rule because of her sin. In the New Testament this external political bondage is taken to a deeper level where we see that our enemy is not some other nation, but evil and oppression itself, and that this evil is not in them over there, but in us. Which brings us to Adam's question: if God is opposed to evil, and we are ourselves evil, how can we be saved?

We cannot simply be removed from external bondage, nor is it enough to merely wipe the legal charges clean. What we need is a change of identity. We need to not only change what we do, but who (and whose) we are. So Scripture speaks of us going from being children of wrath, defined by the hurt and hate of the world, to being adopted children of God. In terms of the Atonement, this is known as "recapitulation". God becomes human, entering into our estate in all of its weakness, woundedness, shame, and guilt. God in Christ so deeply identifies with us in our wretchedness that he "becomes sin" and suffers godforsakenness and accursedness for our sake. Because having been embraced in our darkness and ugliness, we can share in the resurrection life of God.

That plays out in our own lives as we experience the new birth, where God's spirit comes to live in our hearts, and we can cry out with this inner witness "Abba! Father!" as the Spirit of God in us testifies to our inmost being that we are a new creation, born from above. We die to our old self, defined by the world, an enemy of God, and are raised to life in Christ. As we abide in Christ, in an intimate personal relationship with God, we come to know God's grace and love first hand, and that love transforms us into Christ's image. So the cross works to free us of our evil when we come to Jesus and join him in his cross and resurrection. There at the foot of his cross we die to our evil hurtful self, and are born again. We are brought out of our self-focus and separation, and united with Christ, restored into relationship with God, where we were always meant to abide and thrive. In that sense we are justified, meaning "set aright", by being restored into relationship with God as his beloved.

Yes we were because of our own evil God's enemies, but God loves his enemies and gave his life for us while we were his enemies so that we could be conquered and overcome and brought back to our eternal home.

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God's Justice

Sunday, July 22, 2007

In the OT justice is primarily focused on Israel who is oppressed under pagan captivity calling out for justice. We can see this is the Psalms which speak of being "saved" from those who pursue and attack David, to the Prophets who speak of the poor being lifted up from under their burden. Jesus quotes several of these prophesies that speak of good news to the poor, and it is from this understandable that the Jews at the time expected the Messiah to be one who would destroy the evil pagans and restore Israel to its former glory.

But the message of the NT and Jesus instead says that evil is not just "them" over there, it is "us". We are all sinners, and if we only seek to destroy the bad guys to bring about justice, we will find ourselves at the end of that sword. To put this in the language of Paul, we have all sinned, we are all guilty, and we are all subject to wrath. So the good news of wrath - that the bad guys are gonna get it - is really bad news because we are all guilty of oppressing and hurting others.

At the same time though we are also victims of sin. Both sin done to us by others, and also by our own sins that imprison us in hurtful self -destructive behavior. So while we need to be saved from wrath, that can't be all. There needs to be a different way for justice to come about, not by destroying our enemies (which will just come back to get us since we are all guilty of hurting others), but of a way to lift ourselves out of the bondage of hurting, and to stop the cycle of blame and revenge. So here we go from the idea of retributive justice (and also of the idea of acquittal from retributive justice) to the idea of restorative justice, of a justice focused on setting things right, mending what was broken. Because while we now see in the light of the NT that we are the oppressor, we are at the same time the victim too. The victim of others hurtfulness, but also the victim of our own hurtfulness, and merely not getting punished does not actually take us out of that bondage to hurt we are stuck in. It does not bring about justice in us to simply get clemency. We need to go beyond a punitive model to a restorative model that heals what has been broken in us and our world, one that redeems and makes all things new, that gives us new life. Going from the way of and eye for an eye to the way of overcoming evil with good through love of enemies and unmerited grace that God demonstrates by loving us first while we were his enemies because of our hurtfulness. That is the good news to the poor.

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Wikiklesia: Voices of the Virtual World

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


The collaborative book I was asked to contribute a chapter to, Wikiklesia Vol 1: Voices of the Virtual World will release this Monday (July 23) as an online book on Lulu. A hard copy version is on the way too, as well as audio files of the chapters recorded by the authors. You can see a list of the chapter titles for the contributing authors (who include several well known names in the Emergent scene), and the press release for the book. All the books proceeds with go to the Not for Sale campaign to end world slavery. Here's a blurb from the press release.

Voices of the Virtual World explores the growing influence of technology on the global Christian church. In this premier volume, we hear from more than forty voices, including technologists and theologians, entrepreneurs and pastors… from a progressive Episcopalian techno-monk to a leading Mennonite professor… from a tech-savvy mobile missionary to a corporate anthropologist whom Worth Magazine calls "one of Wall Street's 25 Smartest Players." Voices is a far reaching exploration of spiritual journey contextualized within a culture of increasingly immersive technology.

Conceived and established in May 2007, the Wikiklesia Project is an experiment in on-line collaborative publishing. The format is virtual, self-organizing, participatory - from purpose to publication in just a few weeks. All proceeds from the Wikiklesia Project will be contributed to the Not For Sale campaign.

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What is Emergent?

Friday, July 06, 2007

You might have noticed that I stuck a "friend of Emergent" banner on my blog. So thought I'd share a bit of what it means to be an emergent Christian. Here are:

Some sure signs that you are an Emergent Christian

1) You don't agree with everything Emergents believe or say.
One of the hallmarks of being emergent is to challenge ourselves and others to be more faithful to the Gospel. That's why they talk of a "conversation" instead of a statement of faith or creed. So if you think the emergent church is sometimes too relativistic, or does not focus enough on the Gospel, or is not being biblical, then you are being very emergent in disagreeing. If you just bought the whole party line, you would not really be emergent.

2) You could care less if you are Emergent
You don't have a special postmodern groovy service at your church, you are not trying to "relate to people today", you didn't just grow that goatee. You may agree with some of the values of the emergent church like caring about social justice, finding ways to communicate the Gospel in relevant ways today, daring to ask tough questions of faith, or being more concerned about being loving than about being "right", but you were concerned about these things way before anyone was even talking about being emergent.

3) Your focus is on being faithful to Christ, not on relating to the world.
It is not so much about what exactly you are as what you are not. It is post-secular, post-scientism, post-colonial, post-churchianity, post-fundamentalist, post-red/blue state, post-dogmatic. In other words it recognizes the limits of all of these and tries to go beyond them. So for instance, emergents think that theology can only really be right if it produces the fruit of people who are like Jesus. If we have all the right doctrine, but have not love, then we are just a clashing cymbal.

4) You're not theologically liberal (in a Marcus Borg kinda way).
Liberalism is the child of modernism, so being post-modern also makes Emergents post-liberal. Liberalism gets way too stuck in science. Emergents are much more open to awe, mystery, love, and all sorts of things that you can't dissect and control. Of course Emergents would have a lot to critique about conservatism too, and of course find good things in both.

5) You're not relativist (in a "there are no absolutes" kinda way).
Saying there are no absolutes makes truth individualistic. Emergent is communally focused. So we may be related to our bigger world and shaped by it, and we may be limited and unable to know absolutely. But this is a statement of humility rather than certainty. God is absolute, we are relative. So the way we "know" truth is relationally, through trust and humble dependency on God.

6) You're not universalist (in an "I'm ok you're ok" kinda way).
I'm sure we all hope that God will be able to save everyone, but that is quite different from saying that there is no radical evil and brokenness in us and our world. Emergents may also think that Jesus is a lot bigger than the little church boxes we try to squeeze him into and that people might be able to find Jesus without knowing his name. But this again is very different from saying "do/believe whatever you want".

So if you don't agree with everything Emergents believe or say, aren't sure you even want to be Emergent because you really care about focusing on Jesus, and are not a relativist, liberal, or a universalist. Then maybe you might be an emergent. Confused? Good. That's part of it too.

Anything you would want to add to the list?

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