A Response to the Gospel Coalition's Review of my Book

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Recently, the Gospel Coalition published a review of my book Healing the Gospel. The book offers a major critique of hyper-Calvinism and the violent and retributive image of God behind it, proposing instead that the gospel is rooted in the idea of God’s enemy love and restorative justice. So it will probably come as little surprise that they didn't care for the book much.

The review was written by Peter Gurry, a student at Dallas Theological Seminary. Peter begins by correctly identifying a central thesis of my book:
"That thesis, in brief, is 'restoration triumphs over retribution'—purportedly 'the central narrative of the New Testament'"(58). In other words, Flood doesn’t just argue that penal substitution is wrong, misguided, or unbiblical (though he claims all that); he argues that it’s antithetical to the true gospel because it promotes the very thing God saves us from—retributive justice"

He continues, correctly describing the harm that comes from our embracing retribution, which I outline in the book,
    "Retributive justice, as Flood sees it, is deeply harmful. It leads to a battery of heinous ills such as “beating children, torturing prisoners and heretics, etc.” and culminates in even more destructive views of God and ourselves (8). Believers and unbelievers alike are affected. Unbelievers wonder how being saved by a vindictive God could be good news, and believers suffer a crippling sense of self-loathing. The result is a “faith motivated by fear, threat, and feelings of worthlessness” (3)"

His critique begins by making a number of unsubstantiated assertions: Peter claims for example that there is no problem in simultaneously claiming that we die with Christ, and that Christ dies instead of us. He offers no explanation however of how that would be logically possible. Nor does he mention that while the NT frequently says Christ died “for us” and also frequently says that we die “with Christ,” it never once says Christ died instead of us. This is why many Pauline scholars have suggested that the language of "participation" is more reflective of what Paul was expressing than the traditional Reform language of "substitution" is.

Similarly, Peter rejects several readings of Scripture that I outline in the book, but offers no arguments as to why they should be rejected other than to simply declare them "untenable." Considering that the arguments I make in the book are based on work done by some pretty major biblical scholars (James Dunn, Michael Gorman, Morna Hooker, to name a few), I hardly think that one can simply dismiss them out of hand as "untenable."

I make the case in my book that viewing sin strictly from a legal lens has led to a profoundly deficient understanding of sin that in fact trivializes the problem and offers no real cure, and in fact adds to the hurt. It is a view of sin that is out of step with everything we have learned over the last century about mental health, and out of step with the NT.

Peter completely ignores all that his review, and simply makes the unsubstantiated claim that there is no problem with viewing sin as crime. But there is in fact a huge problem. If I get a speeding ticket, that works pretty well at deterring me from speeding. So in cases like this, it seems to work fine. But our prison system has an enormously high rate of repeat offenders, and an alarming amount of people in prison are mentally ill or addicts. What we are increasingly finding is that punitive measures do not lead to their reform, they make them worse. In contrast, restorative programs have had great success at reducing violence in prison and bringing about actual rehabilitation (no repeat offenses). In addition to that, restorative programs also help the victims of crime to heal. Punitive programs do nothing to restore victims.

It’s important to also make clear that Peter does not think that retributive justice should have the function of restoring (or deterring for that matter). He thinks that the purpose should be to inflict hurt for hurt. When he says retribution, he really means it. We need to keep that in mind when he speaks about the "vertical aspect" that is allegedly missing in my book. What is missing is the idea that God must punish sin, and that God cannot simply heal it. In other words, in his view, even if God could heal us and make us loving, good, and holy in Christ, Peter thinks that would not be enough. Even if God could mend the hurt done by our sin to ourselves and others, that would not be enough. God (according to Peter) demands blood, demands hurt. I think that is a view of God that is completely out of step with the New Testament, and deeply troubling.

This brings us to Peter’s biggest objection which is that he feels I focus too much on the "horizontal" impact of sin—how it harms us—and not enough on the "vertical" aspect of how it offends God:

    "[N]ot once does he angle his definition of sin vertically. He does not mention that the first commandment is always the first to be broken. He does not follow Joseph's or David’s concern that sin is fundamentally against God ... Because Flood provides no antidote to our idolatry, his cure turns out to be worse than his diagnosis. Much better to know that in Christ God has not only cured our idol-loving hearts, but he has publicly punished them, too."

In response I would say that this is simply not true. I do focus on the vertical aspect of sin, but the focus is God-down-to-us rather than us-up-to-God. In other words: God is not the one with the problem, we are. That's why God comes to us, while we were yet sinners, while we were God's enemies, and first loved us. Jesus continually draws our attention to how we treat others as a reflection of how we love God. "As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me" Jesus tells us. When David says in Psalm 51 "Against you only, Lord, have I sinned" he is saying the same thing as Jesus. As the king he had thought that he could do whatever he wanted, and so he raped Bathsheba, and then had her husband killed. But now David has realized that in sinning against these powerless subjects of his, he had in fact sinned against the king of kings. The point here is not to say that God doesn't care about what David has done to that poor couple, and instead wanted to have all the attention. The whole point is that God wants us to care about the least, to care about each other. Vertical sin is inseparably connected to horizontal sin.

So if by a vertical focus we mean the notion that God is somehow “offended,” and needs to be mollified by us—that God can't love us until “satisfied” by violent punishment, then yes I do reject that idea. God is not some insecure monarch demanding his pound of flesh. God is the one who comes to us in Jesus, seeking reconciliation. God is not the one with the problem, we are. God does not need to be changed, we do. God does not need to be turned around (=repenting), we do.

If however a vertical focus means that we need to center our lives around God revealed in Christ, then this is in fact something I discuss at great length in the book. I see it as absolutely essential because it is through living with Jesus as our bottom line, as our Lord, and indeed as our friend in an intimate and growing relationship that we learn to love others just as Christ did. This is the "antidote to idolatry" Peter is looking for, found in a loving and transformative relationship with God. That vertical relationship with God naturally flows into our horizontal relationships with others because when we have truly experienced what it is like to be unconditionally loved by God, not based on our goodness, but based on God’s goodness, how can we help but want to treat others with that same grace and mercy we have known? This is not a heaven-ward focus, because a focus on God in Christ calls us not to look up, but to look down to the least. That's where we find Christ.

So the claim made here that I do not have a vertical focus is simply not true. On the contrary, I have a clear "vertical focus" in the book, but it is one focused on a loving and good God showing us enemy love and grace, rather than on an angry God demanding punishment in order to be mollified. That latter view sounds more like a primitive volcano god, and not like God revealed in Jesus Christ.

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50 Shades of Grace: Restorative justice and the Bible

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

A reader of my new book Healing the Gospel wrote and asked me this excellent question:

"You say that restorative justice is the solution to retributive justice.  One question ... isn't the latter the position of the OT that was instigated by God under the law?   If so then is God solving a problem that he has created?  If retributive justice is not that of the law then where did it come from?" 

I think the answer can be found in how Paul has come to read Scripture: Paul tells us in Galatians that the law was something that was given as a temporary thing until the real thing--the "promise" in Christ--comes and makes the law obsolete:

"Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian"
(Gal 3:23-25).

The purpose of the law is to keep us in check as a "guardian". The purpose of en eye for an eye is to restrict the escalation of violence. it is 1 eye instead of the 7 times of Cain and the 77 times Lamech demands "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times!" (Gen 4:24). We see in the genesis account that vengeance is a sinful human response which quickly escalates into out of control violence. The law comes in and curbs this violence by saying "no not 77 eyes, just 1 eye." However, it is not God's intent that the law is the permanent solution. That's why Jesus overturns an eye for an eye in the Sermon on the mount, replacing it with the superior system of enemy love, and why he also reveres Lamech's declaration of extreme violence by making it that we forgive 77 times instead of 7 times (Matt 18:22). Now it is the escalation of forgiveness!

We are under a new way in Christ, the way of radical forgiveness and enemy love. Although it was good in that it curbed the escalation of violence, Paul says in that the reason the law was insufficient is because is cannot produce life:

"Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law" (Gal 3:21).

This idea of the gospel being life-imparting is one that Paul returns to frequently. Retribution and punishment are not life-imparting because they can only give a negative consequence for hurtful actions, but they cannot change our hearts, they cannot heal. Restorative justice can. It heals, mends, imparts life. The one gives restrictions, and the other is all about our being transformed by being in union with Christ, in a loving relationship where we are transformed by God's love as we spend time with Jesus and grow to be like him.

The law is limited in what it can do (it cannot impart life, it cannot make us holy) and thus is not God's ultimate plan (As Paul says, the promise is not the law), however Paul maintains that it has a good purpose. However, it has also through sin become something deeply hurtful, as Paul confesses in Romans:

"I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death" (Rom 7:10-11)

Anything good can become hurtful. In fact, the more good something is, the more potential it has to cause harm when it goes bad. Families are meant to be a place where we are safe and loved, but they can also be deeply abusive and leave devastating scars. Religion and law are also meant to be good, but can likewise become abusive. We see that abuse in the Pharisees whom Jesus is continually confronting. Paul was a Pharisee too before he changed his way and took up the way of Christ.

This is not about pitting Judaism against Christianity! Jesus and Paul were both Jews. It is about how we approach faith. Whether we use religion to justify hurtfulness (ranging from hurtful words that exclude and condemn, to actual acts of violence done in God's name) or whether we instead take up the way of grace, restoration, and love of enemies.

So, with all that under our belt, let's return to the original question: retributive justice (i.e. the way of seeking vengeance for harm done) is something that pre-existed the law. It is a human response to hurt that quickly escalates in to more and more hurt. The law of an eye for an eye was a temporary measure intended to curb violence. However, as Paul tells us, this was not God's ultimate plan. God's ultimate plan is seen in the superior way of restorative justice which is modeled by God in his act of restorative justice in Christ. That is how God loves us, and we are to likewise love like that too.

Wrath can be understood as the consequence for sin (Paul describes it in terms of wages, inheritance, fruit which are all different ways at getting at this idea). So saying that wrath follows sin is a bit like saying that death follows a terminal illness. According to the laws of medicine, that is how sickness works. So the intent of the law is to warn people to avoid behaviors that are hurtful in the same way that a doctor would advise us to avoid behavior that would lead to sickness. At best it the law can give us a picture of what the ideal picture of healthy relationships should look like.

The role we see wrath playing in the OT is therefore primarily one of warning. Similar to those warning on the side of cigarette boxes, the prophets warn of impending disaster from sin with the intent of moving their hearers to repentance. That is, the desire is never for harm, it is always instead for people to turn from their hurtful ways and to live.

But what so we do with people who don't listen and get sick? What do we do with people who fall outside of that law, people who both hurt others and have been hurt themselves? (which, if we are honest would probably be all of us!) What do we do with people who are blinded by their pain, and who make dumb and hurtful choices? Do we just write them off? Do we wish pain on them? Not if we love them we don't. But we also cannot simply look on while the hurt continues.

That is where the idea of healing comes in. A doctor may warn you not to smoke, but if you get cancer, that doctor will nevertheless do everything they can to fight that cancer and save your life. This is exactly what we see Jesus doing: he does not blame or condemn people, he restores, heals, and forgives them, and calls them to follow. People thought that when a person was sick that this was a judgement of God due to their sin. We see this for example in the story of the man born blind where his disciples ask, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). We can see this same thinking backed up in many parts of the Old Testament. Jesus does not affirm these "judgments," and in fact identifies this not with God's judgment, but with the work of the Satan, and declares that he has come to oppose that reign with his kingdom. 

So we see some pretty radical shifts taking place here. A major take-away is that neither Jesus or Paul understand the Old Testament to be a perfect revelation of God's eternal way. There are many things about it that a provisional and limited. That's why Jesus says that it needed to be "fulfilled" (the Greek word means "completed") and then proceeds to amend and reverse things like an eye for an eye with love of enemies on the sermon on the Mount. In other words, his fulfillment does not mean he accepts everything (since we see him immediately reversing some things), rather it means he lovingly brings it to its full intended place, just as Jesus does not leave us as he finds us, but lovingly shapes us into Christ-likeness.

Consider Paul's story: He had read his Bible as a Pharisee and it had led him to a life of religious violence--persecuting the church, participating in the stoning of Stephen--which later led him to call himself "the greatest of sinners." Paul's great sin as he understood it was using religion as a justification for hurting people. After he came to Christ (which at involved an act of healing and enemy love), he had to go back and learn to read his Bible in a completely different way. He had been trained in the law, he knew the Bible inside and out, and yet it had lead him to that he describes as "producing death." The New Testament is all about confronting that legacy of toxic religion which is epitomized in the way of retribution and religiously justified violence and replacing it with the superior way of grace and God's restorative justice revealed in Christ.

Part of the consequence of that means that we need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did, and like Paul learned to as well. That means that we learn to look for the way of Jesus, and recognize that, especially in the Old Testament, we do not always see that way reflected. So we need to learn to read Scripture Christocentrically, that is, we need to learn to recognize when Scripture reflects Christ... and when it does not. That's why Paul writes,

"To this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away" (2 Cor 3:14).

This is a huge topic (and this is a really long blog post already!), so let me end with some resources: My Sojourners article on how Paul wrestled with violence in the Bible is a good place to start. If you've read Brian McLaren's new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? you'll likely recognize the same content in one of the chapters, which he based on my Sojourners article (he of course asked me, and I was thrilled). I'm in the process of working that article into a full length book for my next major project, but that will take a while. In the meantime, another helpful resource is the work of Eric Seibert. Eric has two books out on this topic: Disturbing Divine Behavior and The Violence of Scripture. Both highly recommended. Another great resource is the work of William Webb and his trajectory hermeneutics.

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