Why the Cross Matters (Pt 2)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Last time I left off speaking of Paul's exegetical declaration "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Co 2:2). The cross has a profound affect on how we read the Bible, and is key to its proper interpretation. This time I want to focus on how the cross affects how we think and how we live, that is, how it is the key to a Jesus-shaped ethics.

Paul's stance of seeing everything through the lens of "Christ crucified" completely revolutionized how he read Scripture, and it also revolutionized how he lived his life, and his understanding of what it meant to follow God. That is not just pious talk, Paul radically changed his approach to faith, going from a faith which led him to violently persecute the church, to one that led him to endure persecution in Jesus name. He went from legalism to grace, from religiously justified violence to enemy love and nonviolence. At the heart of that change is the cross. Having listed all the things he used to see a central to his faith, Paul writes, "I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ" (Phil 3:8). Now what does it mean to "gain Christ"? He continues, "I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (v 10-11). Notice the pattern here of knowing the power of the resurrection by becoming like him in his death.

This echos the pattern Paul has set up in the previous chapter where he tells of how Christ "being in very nature God... made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant" (Phil 2:6-7) and how that act of self-giving and dying to self resulted in "every tongue acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (v 11). For Paul, saying "Jesus is Lord" means that the crucified one is Lord, and thus that God has proclaimed the way of the cross as both God's way and our way. This is, as Michael Gorman calls it, Paul's "master story" of both the narrative of God's actions in Jesus, and of our model of ethics as we take up our cross and follow. Paul in fact directly connects the example of Christ in the opening hymn of Philippians with how we should act. He introduces it by saying, "In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus" (v 5). Our way of life needs to be the way of the cross, the way of doing "nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." (v 3-4).

Paul makes an identical point in in Romans when he says we are to live as a "living sacrifice" (Ro 12:1) so that how we think, see, and act is formed by the cross . He continues, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (v 2). Notice here, as in Philippians, Paul draws a direct connection between Christ's sacrificial death and our ethical response. In fact, more than any "theory" of the atonement, what we see in the NT again and again is a connection made from what Jesus did, and what we should do. The cross leads to ethics. From the perspective of the New Testament, this is not a side point, it is the main point.

Paul goes on in this chapter to outline what that looks like. It involves being "we-focused" rather than "me-focused," caring for those in need, demonstrating humility and compassion... but the crux of it all (if you pardon the pun) is summed up in his concluding statement "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (12:21). We see here that Paul's understanding of the Christ crucified, and what it means for us to declare the crucified Jesus "Lord" is deeply tied to what we see Jesus doing throughout the gospels in his teaching and ministry. That is, in order to understand the cross we need to get that all of what Jesus did lead up to the cross. The way of Jesus we see throughout the gospels is the way of the cross. Paul directly makes that connection for us.

Why does the cross matter? Because the atonement is inseparable from ethics, and from exegesis. Understanding the cross properly does not just have an impact on our own personal salvation and relationship with God (as important at that is!), it also changes how we see our world, what we value, and how we treat others.

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Why the Cross Matters (Pt 1)

Today is "Christ the King Sunday" and that seemed like an appropriate time to begin a series of posts I wanted to do on why the cross matters. This time I wanted to address how the cross affects how we interpret Scripture. I've said before that we need to read the Old Testament through the eyes of Jesus in order to properly understand it the way the New Testament does. However I want here to make that more specific: we need to take all of what we read and bring it to the cross in order to understand it correctly.

This can be clearly seen in how the cross shapes our understanding of who God's true messiah is. Peter along with the majority of his fellow Jews at the time had expected the messiah to be a warrior king who would lead Israel to conquer the gentiles by the sword, just as Joshua had done for Israel when it entered the promised land. Their hopes of having a just world free from oppression were tied up in this being brought about through violence and bloodshed in the name of God, freedom, and justice. It is an ethos that I'm sure we all recognize as being alive and well today as well, but it was decidedly not the way of Jesus. Jesus did not come to kill the gentiles and sinners, he came to reconcile and save them, and he did not plan on bringing about this "deliverance" by military conquest, but by giving his life on a cross.

This was an idea that was so completely foreign to Peter that when he heard it, he exclaimed to Jesus "never Lord!" Peter says this immediately after he has declared that Jesus is the messiah. The two go hand in hand. Peter's idea of the messiah, based on what he saw in the OT was one of a war lord who redeems through violent force. But Jesus says to him "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" (Mt 16:23). I'm sure you've heard many sermons on the first part of that sentence, but I want to highlight the last part: you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. Jesus thinks that Peter's understanding of the messiah--an understanding that the majority of biblical scholars would agree is solidly founded on the Old Testament texts--does not represent God's way but man's. So Peter and we need to completely redefine everything the OT says about the messiah in the light of the cross.

We in fact need to do that with everything we read in the Old Testament. We need to take it to the cross and see how it is transformed by it. We need to apply the theologica crucis to all our exegesis. An exegesis of the cross if you will. Take for example the story of David and Goliath. There we have the tale of how the little guy overcomes the giant. But notice that the little guy still overcomes that giant by killing him. What we need to ask is how this story is like the cross, and how it is not. What in this story points us to the cross, and what in this story needs to die. In Jesus we have the story as well of the little "mustard seed" of the kingdom accomplishing big things, and we have the picture of Jesus overcoming and fighting evil, but the enemy is not other people, it is evil and death itself. Jesus does not win the battle by violence and force, but by going to the cross.

It is crucial that we apply the cross to all of what we read in the Bible. This will often necessarily mean deliberately subverting the intended meaning of a passage in the Old Testament--reading it in a way that may appear to be, as Paul says, "a stumbling block" and "foolishness" to some. The theology of the cross carries with it exactly such radical consequences. It means not only our dying, but also the crucifixion of destructive religion itself. This is precisely why the religious leaders of his time wanted Jesus killed. But as Jesus says, if we do not learn how to bring the cross into our exegesis and let it shape how we interpret Scripture, we will likely end up like Peter misreading the Bible and promoting "the way of man not God." This is in fact exactly what Paul did before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. He had read his Bible and saw in there that the way to defend God was through violent zeal, and he exercised that zeal, that violence in the name of God, in persecuting the church. But after he met the crucified Lord, he read those same Scriptures and saw a completely different narrative. So he proclaims boldly "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Co 2:2).

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Basing Theology on Experience Pt 2 - Grace

Monday, November 15, 2010

I recently blogged about Basing Theology on Experience. Shortly after writing that I got an email from a reader asking me what I thought of the charismatic movement. They raised a number of important questions, but it all really boiled down to this one:

"But the core of it all - for me it seems that the charismatic movement from its beginning has lead people to believe in an authoritarian God. A God who comes with force, who overpowers you etc. Where as in Jesus I see a very different approach."

I think this raises a very important point: when speaking about "basing theology on experience" that needs a qualifier. I should say basing theology on the experience of grace. Grace is the central narrative of the New Testament, and it is also the lens though which Jesus and the authors of the NT interpreted the Old Testament. Grace is what characterized the entire ministry of Jesus to the sick and the sinner. Grace is what turned a violent Saul into the Chirst following apostle Paul. Miss grace and you miss everything.

The gospels tell a beautiful story of a "sinful woman" who washes Jesus' feet with her tears and pours a jar of alabaster perfume over them. The Pharasees are shocked at this display. But Jesus says "those who are forgiven little, love little" (Lk 7:4). From that let me make a bold assertion: Those who do not know grace, cannot properly understand the Bible. Those who have experienced grace little, understand the Bible little.

On the other hand, if we have experienced grace - that is, if we have known God's amazing grace in the middle of all of our brokenness, darkness, and hurt, that unearned wonderful love completely changes us. It sends us to our knees, it melts our hearts. Such a lived experience of grace is absolutely essential to proper theology. Truth to be understood, must be lived. We need to come to the text as those who know grace and have been transformed by it. Otherwise we may miss its central point. We see this in the story of Paul who before his encounter with Jesus has in fact completely misread the narrative of Scripture and as a result was opposing the church. When he was encountered by grace, this changed his whole outlook, including how he read the Bible.

This experience of God's grace also needs to be how we judge our own religious experiences and interactions with others. Are these demonstrating grace? Are we encountering people with God's transforming love? Is that the main focus of what we do? When charismatics focus more on the manifestation of gifts than then do on the purpose of a gift which is to show love, then I think they miss grace. I was raised charismatic, and still consider myself to be charismatic, so I know that church (it's good parts and bad parts) quite well. I've been in services that get really hyped up and freaky. I've seen many pastors who are on power trips. I've also seen us evangelicals focus on morals and "right and wrong" in a really unloving combative way when what we should be doing is treating others with the same mercy we so desperately need. In each of these grace gets pushed out of the way when it should be the very center of what we do and who we are.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Cor 13:1-8a)

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Getting Historical Jesus Study Wright and Wrong

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

I recently blogged about why the historical study of Jesus is a waste of time. There I argued against the prevalent mode of historical Jesus studies, which has been to pick which sayings of Jesus are "authentic" and toss out the rest. Apparently, I am not the only one who has problems with this. For example a few months ago Scot McKnight wrote a scathing article in Christianity Today where he made many of the same points I did in my previous blog post here. In his response to McKnight, NT Wright argued that there is a "massive gulf" between the way he (and a few others) do historical Jesus studies, and the kind of historical Jesus studies that McKnight and I are criticizing. What Wright does in contrast is all about understanding the historical context and worldview of the time so that we can then read the canonical text without projecting our own assumptions and worldviews into it. This is something that I could whole-heartedly embrace. So I guess I should re-title that blog post "why the historical study of Jesus was a waste of time until NT Wright came along."

That said, there are some problems that folks have raised with Wright's historical reconstruction of Jesus. I'd like to discuss two of those here and then offer my own thoughts about them. They are (a) the existence of heaven, and (b) the doctrine of justification. So pretty heavy-duty topics. Let me also say at the outset that I offer these critiques with great respect. NT Wright is not only a brilliant scholar, he is also a caring pastor with a real heart for people and for ethics, so I know that the issues I'm raising here are ones he cares about too.

Imagine There's no Heaven. NT Wright has made a point of saying that the NT does not teach that Christians go to heaven when we die. One example of this is an interview he gave in Time magazine called "Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop." Instead Wright focuses on the larger message that we will all one day rise when Jesus comes back. That of course raises the question: where are my loved ones now? Markus Bockmuehl gave a talk at this years Wheaton Theology Conference (check out the link for video and audio of all the talks) where he demonstrated persuasively from biblical evidence that Wright was wrong about this (or at least that he is only telling half the story). Believers when they die will indeed go to be with Jesus and the community of the saints and be in heaven with God. In the following panel discussion session, Wright does not really disagree with Bockmuehl (although he feels a bit misunderstood), and instead stresses that the reason he focuses so much this non-heaven line is because he wants to get away from the escapist notion of heaven that is so common. Fair enough, but that's like saying God does not exist because people's faith is too escapist (which is of course exactly what the New Atheists do).

So what we have is a matter of emphasis: The NT says that we go to heaven (or if you prefer, we go to "be with Jesus"), and it says that we will all rise in the great resurrection. The focus of the NT is on the later. What then happens is that Wright will be quoted by Time or some other news source which will then simplify this to "Christians Wrong About Heaven" and next thing you know folks are going claiming there is no such thing as heaven (and I've heard seminarians claim exactly that). Wright does not mind this so much because he believes that it is important that we draw our attention away from heaven which he associates with escapism. Here he is making a legitimate ethical point (our concept of heaven should not be escapist), but he is doing so with the wrong means (saying as a historian and scholar that the Bible does not teach that we go to heaven).

This illustrates something that happens all too often with historical Jesus studies: Scholars will use their authority status as historical experts to make ethical points. The very same thing happens when other historical Jesus scholars claim that Jesus did not actually say something which... big surprise... they don't like. Now it is certainly valid for these scholars to make such ethical points, but we need to be very careful here. It is very important to be forthright about the ethical claims that are being made, and not mask these behind the mantle of objective historical research. That would be a misuse of both ethics and historical study, and do a disservice to both disciplines.

What Wright is saying is an ethical point: we should care for this earth. We should be involved in healing our world here. I totally agree with him on that (and highly recommend his closing talk). But that is really an ethical and theological issue, and needs to be discussed openly as such. Frankly, I do not find Jewish apocalyptic helpful at all in working towards this. I find on the contrary that it muddies the waters quite a bit. Maybe that's just me, but I think the focus needs to be on how we can implement the kingdom teaching and actions of Jesus right now in our lives, and not on grasping some foreign concept of eschatology from another worldview. That gets our focus off of what it should be on, which is embodying Christ-like action in our world.

Does Luther get Justification Wrong? Another issue is related to Wright's take on the New Perspective on Paul, which basically says that Paul in Romans is not focused on answering Luther's question of "how can I find a gracious God?" and instead is arguing against issues of food laws and ritual observances. Now I've personally been a proponent of the New Perspective (in particular the version espoused by James Dunn). I find it brings a lot of things to light that had been missed before, like how the gospel deals with issues of religious violence, and exclusiveness. I think it is fair to say that the New Perspective gets Paul right historically in a way that Luther does not.

That said, I think that Luther did manage to see how Paul's message of grace in his own time spoke directly to the issues that Luther was dealing with in his. A first step in biblical interpretation is to understand the original context and meaning, but then we need to go beyond that ask how the text might speak to our own pressing questions. Otherwise it just becomes a letter dealing with issues that were important in the past, which are no longer relevant to us today (food laws, circumcision, etc).

So I think it would be a mistake is to say that the New Perspective is the one right way to read Paul. Wright however does seem to place precisely that kind of priority on his historical reading, and that is what I would want (lovingly I hope) to challenge. The New Perspective definitely has many profound insights that we need to hear, but then so did Luther and the protestant reformation. Why can't we hear and learn from both of them? The other Martin Luther (King Jr.) also read the New Testament and found it speaking to issues of racial justice and equality, applying it in ways that the original authors also had not directly envisioned at the time. Do we need to dismiss that too because it is equally unhistorical? On the contrary, I'd say that what Luther and MLK were doing is exactly what we are supposed to do too. We too need to learn how to read the Bible and see how it message speaks into our lives and world today. That is after all the theological task: not just to correctly read the past, but to construct a vision for how to apply the gospel to our time. That means we will need to deal with things which were not even on their radar back then: world hunger relief, globalization, medical ethics, and on and on. Historical grounding is a great place to start, but it is not where we should stop.

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Basing Theology on Experience

What is the source of theology? Some would say it is sola scriptura--Scripture alone. Others cast the net a bit further and say that it is the quadrilateral of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. That last one, experience, always comes in last. Lots of people are really wary of experience. It makes them think of uncontrolled emotion, subjective feelings, and stuff out of control. But I'd like to make the somewhat radical proposal that experience should be the central category for how we do theology, and that this is a deeply biblical position to take.

By experience I simply mean actually knowing God in a relationship, so that faith is lived and not merely theoretical. That has very little to too with emotions (although there is nothing wrong with emotion!), and everything to do with living our faith, with actually loving God, ourselves, and others. I imagine everyone is with me so far, but what about the Bible? Isn't that a matter of objective detached study?

That is certainly how you learn to study it in seminary. But nevertheless I insist: No! this is not what understanding the Bible should be based on. I've discussed this in some detail in my article on relational theology so I don't want to rehash that here. In a nutshell I would say (following Stanley Grenz here) that Scripture is primary because it informs experience, shapes reason, and is the source from which tradition develops, as well its constant spur to reformation. At the same time however, Scripture ultimately serves a servant function of leading us into relationship with Christ so we can live out Christ-like relationships. So the goal is experience, namely the experience of meeting God and having that transform all our other experiences.

The unforgivable sin, Jesus says, is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says this in the context of the Pharisees rejecting the work of the Spirit happening among them through the healing ministry of Jesus because it conflicted with their understanding of the law. Here experience of what God was doing in Jesus trumps their tradition, and their reading of Scripture, and their reasoning. There is nothing worse, no greater crime, Jesus says, than missing out one what the Spirit is doing right in front of you. It is, Jesus says, the biggest sin possible. Those are some pretty strong words.

With that in mind think about Paul's conversion: His experience on the Damascus road causes him to re-read Scripture anew in light of that encounter with Christ. Paul's experience of Christ caused him to completely re-think (reason) his whole tradition as a Pharisee, and how he had read Scripture.
Experience precedes exegesis.

Likewise, the council of Jerusalem in the book of Acts bases their decision to include gentiles in the gospel (which was a huge decision!) based primarily on the experience of what the Spirit was doing among them as testified to by Paul and Peter. Acknowledging this, James then connects their experience to what was foretold in the Scriptures. Experience again precedes and shapes biblical interpretation.

From that I want to argue that in order to really get the Bible, you need to get grace, and the only way to really get it is to experience it. The woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears understood much more deeply than any of the religious scholars sitting at that table and looking down their noses at her did. We need to know grace like that, so its unconditional love brings us to our knees in gratitude, and makes us want to love that way too. Paul before he knew grace read the Bible and got it all wrong. After he met God in Christ on the Damascus road and was struck blind, it was a disciple who was willing to love his enemy who healed him. Think about how it would effect you to be healed by the people who you had tried to kill. That's grace. After that he suddenly got the Bible. We need to get some of that. So my prayer for you is that you would find grace in your life, that you would know what it means to be unconditionally loved, no matter how broken or messed up you are, and that being loved like that would change how you see everything.

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