Random musings on life, the universe and nothing in particular...
Monday, August 30, 2004
Having arrived back from a very refreshing and enjoyable holiday I now have a lot of work to get done in the next few days. I may have to wait until later on in the week before I think about posting anything more on Wright. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to get some reading done whilst I was away. I have been a long way behind on my reading schedule over the last month or two. I managed to read a lot of The Federal Vision. I especially appreciated James Jordan's chapter, 'Merit Versus Maturity: What Did Jesus Do for Us?' — very insightful and thought-provoking.
I have also been reading Douglas Farrow's Ascension and Ecclesia, which is a fantastic book on the subject. After having read Farrow's excellent article on the Eucharist, I tried to find out if he had written any books and was quite excited to find Ascension and Ecclesia. Farrow has many helpful things to say on the subject. I found Farrow's treatment of the Eucharist particularly interesting. He raises some important criticisms of Calvin's doctrine, whilst being quite sympathetic towards it. For example, he observes that, by speaking only in terms of a spatial distance between Christ and ourselves and failing to give due attention to the temporal distance, Calvin tended to marginalize the body in his understanding of our union with Christ and invited the reduction of his eucharistic doctrine to the sursum corda. More attention to eschatology in his eucharistic doctrine might have saved Calvin from these problems.
I am actually going to be leaving for holiday early tomorrow now. I thought I'd rather have this finished before I left, so here goes:—
Having presented a few thoughts on some different aspects of the atonement, I would now like to turn to the issue of scapegoating. Reading a couple of the works of René Girard over the last few months has been quite stimulating in a number of respects and I would highly recommend his work to anyone wanting to study this subject in more detail. I only have a short time in which to give a few brief notes on this aspect of the atonement before I leave for holiday, so I will merely give some sketchy and suggestive notes on thoughts that Girard has stimulated for me on this subject.
As I have been reading Girard I have become increasingly aware of the fact that Israel is the scapegoat nation. The OT almost invariably tells the story from the perspective of the victims of the scapegoating mechanism. Covenant history is drawn around vindicated scapegoats: Joseph, Job, Jeremiah, etc. In fact, in the Exodus narrative the whole nation plays the role of scapegoat, being formed around Moses — the chief scapegoat. The nation is not merely permitted to leave Egypt; they are driven out and expelled (Exodus 6:1; 12:39). I wonder how much weight we should on all of this.
Israel as the true people of God is continually defined over against those who would kill their brothers and bury their guilt. We see this in the cases of Cain (Genesis 4:8), Ishmael (Genesis 27:17-18), Esau (Genesis 27:41; Obadiah 9-10), Joseph’s brother’s (Genesis 37:18), Edom (Amos 1:10-11; Obadiah 8-10) and Tyre (Amos 1:9).
Later on in the covenant narrative, apostate Israel seems to take the role that was earlier occupied by the Egyptians, when they cast out Jesus the Messiah. The NT writers appreciate that the Jews that reject Christ are the inheritors of the role marked out by Cain and others as the seed of the serpent. In some manner or other, Israel consummates the demonic principle of the murder of the innocent (Matthew 23:34-35; John 8:39-44). Jerusalem is exposed to be the city, above all the other cities of the world, founded upon innocent blood (Revelation 11:8; 18:24).
Jesus takes on the role of the righteous victim. However, He is no mere victim of circumstances, but one who gives Himself willingly. The whole judgment on fratricidal humanity is drawn onto Him.
In the past I used to believe that the unjust motives of the Jews and Romans in putting Christ to death were largely unimportant for any doctrine of the atonement. I am increasingly having doubts about this opinion. After seeing something of the manner in which the scapegoating mechanism works throughout the Gospels, I am wondering whether the unjust motives and the lies behind the Jews’ and the Romans’ crucifixion of Christ are absolutely essential to what the cross actually achieved. In other words, the atonement could not have achieved what it achieved were a faithful Israel with a faithful priesthood to present Jesus to God as a human sin offering on their behalf. The injustice of the crucifixion was in some sense necessary in order for Christ to truly set the world to rights.
The whole of history is a great heavenly legal battle. The Accuser seeks to unjustly lay charges against the people of God (e.g. Job 2:3). Satan is the one who endeavours to make the seed of the woman into the scapegoat and the expulsion of this scapegoat as the foundation of the city of man. Satan is the father of lies and the one who was a murderer from the beginning. He is the one who inspires the murder on which the city of man is founded and he is the one who buries this murdered victim in the tomb of myth and lie.
Following the cross the Accuser of the brethren is finally cast down, his lawsuit against the people of God thrown out of court. The charge that was laid against God’s elect is nailed to the cross and removed. As the curse of the Torah is decisively dealt with and the people of God are vindicated, Satan can no longer function as the Accuser in the same way again.
Throughout the OT we see a consistent belief that God will one day vindicate His scapegoated people. God will not merely exhume the bones of His people from the covering of their tombs; He will grant them full-fledged resurrection.
In the NT we see that the whole work of Christ serves to bring to light the murder that lies at the foundation of the apostate nation. Beneath Jerusalem’s streets lie the tombs of the prophets, all the righteous men and the saints who were murdered since the foundation of the world. These tombs provide the foundation of the city itself and its inhabitants seek to cover up the truth behind the murder of these men either by adorning the graves, or by burying them as deep as possible. As the mature expression of the city of man Jerusalem shares the same foundations as Sodom, Egypt and Babylon (Revelation 11:8) — the murder of the innocent scapegoat.
The sin of scapegoating is essentially linked to the sin of self-righteousness. The ungodly justify themselves by condemning others, and ultimately the Righteous One Himself. Christ describes the Pharisees as those who are complicit in the concealing of the founding murders in Matthew 23. However, He also likens the Pharisees to hidden tombs; not only do the Pharisees house uncleanness and death within themselves as if they were sepulchers, they also conceal their very character as tombs.
The whole process of scapegoating is an attempt to relocate guilt. The Pharisees were those who were seeking to vindicate themselves by concealing the truth about the murder of the prophets. Not only as a society, but deep within themselves as individuals they carried the concealed bones of dead men. The Pharisees were well-practiced scapegoaters: by judging and condemning others they sought to vindicate themselves.
Paul points this out in Romans 2. Those who engage in judgment in such a manner in order to vindicate themselves actually end up condemning themselves. The death that Israel points to in the nations lies in the stone tomb of Israel’s own heart.
In His ministry Christ warns that all of this blood will be required from the hands of the wicked generation (Matthew 23:34-36). Jesus knew that His rejection was essential for the preservation of the city, that in some sense, His tomb (as the ultimate Innocent Victim) would provide the fullest foundation of Satan’s city.
Nothing could threaten the old world order more than resurrection. The idea that the graves would be opened and that the inhabitants would come forth must have struck terror into Satan’s heart and caused his minions much fear. The foundations of the city would break open and the city itself would disintegrate. By expelling the Son, the wicked vinedressers had brought destruction upon themselves.
In Jesus’ resurrection the foundations of Satan’s kingdom are exposed; the innocence of the Victim is manifest. Satan’s kingdom, as it is founded on a lie about the original murder, cannot ultimately survive the light of the Truth. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ throws the ancient order into ferment as the general resurrection and uncovering of all the tombs comes into the present. The truth about Jesus’ death cannot be covered over by Satan and all the secrets are brought to light. The webs of myth are brushed away from the graves and the tombs and the witnesses to the truth who have been silenced until now step forth.
The legal battle that was in principle won following the resurrection of Jesus Christ is continued through the witnessing Paraclete, who acts as the Advocate for the people of God against the Accuser. Through the ministry of the Paraclete the early Church bore witness to the innocence of the Victim — whose covered grave the rulers of the age intended to use as the foundation of their city — and threw the city into disorder in the process (Acts 5:27-32). Through the testimony of the martyrs the world was turned upside down as the inhabitants of the graves rose up and the kingdoms crumbled into dust; the residents of the catacombs were exalted as the inhabitants of thrones were cast down.
For all of this to take place, it was necessary that the scapegoating mechanism should bring about the crucifixion of Christ. Only by this means could the foundations of Satan’s kingdom be uncovered and destroyed. Despite the operation of the scapegoating mechanism, however, it was clearly God who was ultimately putting everything into effect.
Once the foundations of Satan’s kingdom have been exposed and destroyed, the whole superstructure is doomed to fall. Christ’s death at the hands of the evil city builders (Matthew 21:42) has resulted in the foundation of a new city — a city with true and sure foundations. Jesus Christ becomes the chief cornerstone of the Church. The foundations of this edifice are not the silenced tombs of the prophets, but those who, though dead, by faith still speak (Ephesians 2:20).
I had originally planned to be joining my family on holiday in Wales tomorrow afternoon. However, as things now stand it looks likely that I will going there this evening. I had hoped to post my last post on the subject of the atonement in the early afternoon tomorrow. Unfortunately, I will probably have to wait until next Monday.
Many evangelicals would understand the atonement in something like the following manner: Our sin breaks God’s holy law and results in His wrath against us. Sin must always be punished. If we were to bear the punishment of the sins that we committed we would have to suffer the punishment for all eternity in hell. However, God, in His love, punished Jesus instead of us. He bore the punishment that we deserved, God having put our sins to His account. He was condemned so that we might go free.
This understanding of the atonement presents the justice that is being exercised largely in terms of retributive justice. Underlying this approach is the idea of ‘recompense’ that is common to many theories of the atonement. In some manner or other God’s justice must be satisfied or honour must be compensated for the each of the sins that we have committed. Most evangelicals think of the recompense principle operating in terms of criminal law, rather than in terms of civil law. When we have committed sin God’s justice requires retribution. In order to maintain the divine justice and yet save us from punishment, someone must suffer the punishment in our place. Christ’s action on the cross was His bearing of the punishment due to our sins, so that we ourselves might not be punished.
This is essentially the position that I will be critiquing in this post.
Many have objected to this notion by pointing out that guilt and punishment are inalienable. Whilst another person may pay a fine that you had incurred for you, no one could serve a jail sentence for you without injustice taking place. This objection is certainly not without its force. It is hard to believe that a judge would be just were he to allow a convicted murderer to walk free and execute an innocent man in his place.
Despite the force of this criticism, I believe that it is important to highlight some of its limitations; there are reasons to question whether this criticism is actually as forceful as it initially appears to be. The biggest problem that I have with it is that it seems to be thoroughly individualistic. Scripture presents punishment in terms which are far from individualistic. In the OT we read a lot about national punishments; Israel is frequently punished for his sins. Even though there were many in Israel who may not have been personally guilty of the apostasy that led to Israel being punished in various ways, they still suffered the punishment along with the rest of the nation.
Within the covenant there were structures that could lead to the nation as a whole being punished for the sins of its leaders or for the sins of other individuals within the nation. The sins of individuals within Israel were never really just ‘individual’ sins, but had consequences for the nation as a whole. The punishment for sins committed by individuals was not limited to those individuals alone. Indeed, in certain circumstances it was possible for the punishment to fall on people other than those who were guilty of the sins that had resulted in the punishment, without any idea of the justice of God being impugned.
Part of our problem today is that, following many centuries of thinking of the role of the Law as something like an abstract set of moral commandments addressed to individuals, we forget that the Torah was the covenant document and the charter for Israel’s national life. It simply was not the case that each and every individual in Israel enjoyed a private covenant relationship with God hermetically sealed from those enjoyed by every other member of the nation. Keeping the Torah was not merely a case of individuals living lives that were faithful to the covenant, important though that was; keeping the Torah was primarily about the life of the nation as a whole.
I believe that this is illustrated in such passages as Romans 2:17-24. Paul’s argument in this passage is not that each and every Jew is guilty of committing adultery or robbing temples. Rather, he is claiming that the existence of these sins within Israel undermines any claim that Israel might have to be affirmed as she stood.
Given the ‘corporate’ character of keeping the Torah, we should also recognize the existence of ‘corporate’ guilt in Israel. Israel as a whole could become deserving of God’s punishment and not just individuals within him. For Israel the state of the nation as a whole impacted on the spiritual benefits enjoyed by individuals. The spiritual life of the individual and that of the nation as a whole were bound together inseparably. Forgiveness of sins was not a mere privatized blessing, but was something that the whole nation earnestly longed for.
In addition to the covenant providing mechanisms whereby the punishment for the sins of a few individuals within the nation could be suffered by the nation as a whole, the covenant also provided mechanisms whereby a few individuals, or even one individual, could bear the punishment for the sins of the entire nation.
A number of authors have pointed to the reported statements made by some of the Maccabaean martyrs as illustrative of a Jewish understanding of this principle. They prayed that the suffering that they were experiencing would suffice for the whole nation.
In the light of all of this, I believe that we should be cautious of being overly hasty in banishing the ideas of punishment and substitution from our explanations of what happened at the cross. As I have sought to argue, there is no basis for the claim that one man bearing the punishment that is due to a whole nation is inherently unjust.
It is at this point that we must turn to analyze the common evangelical form of penal substitution and question whether it provides a satisfying account of the atonement.
I have already suggested that penal substitution may be biblically viable, despite its many critics. However, not all of the models of penal substitution that we are presented with are in any way adequate. There are certain conditions that must be met for penal substitution to work and the common evangelical forms of penal substitution generally do not satisfy these conditions.
The first condition has to do with the type of sins for which the punishment can be borne by someone other than the sinner. Many Christians think of sin as a merely individual thing. When they think of Christ bearing sins they think of the sins of all elect individuals throughout history being ‘put to Christ’s account’ and Christ paying the punishment due to them (even before some of the sins have ever been committed).
Such a situation is, I am persuaded, quite contrary to God’s standard of justice. Punishment and guilt are inalienable and cannot be transferred from one person to another. They are inseparably attached to those who have committed them. The idea of an extrinsic transfer of guilt or punishment on which the common evangelical forms of penal substitution tend to rely is simply unworkable. The model that I have provided does, I believe, account for this problem: Israelites were never abstract individuals and their personal sins were imputed to the nation as a whole, not by means of an extrinsic transfer but by virtue of the character of the covenant relationship that existed between God and the people and the manner in which the covenant document of Torah drew sin onto the nation.
In the light of all of this I believe that we can claim that the statement that God punished Jesus instead of Israel is patently false; rather, God punished Israel in Jesus her Messiah.
Lying behind what I have just stated is the fact that the substitute cannot be ‘external’ to those for whom he suffers. The idea of any man off the street in Japan, for example, bearing the punishment due to Israel is simply nonsensical. The transfer of guilt and punishment in such a manner is impossible. Any notion of the imputation of sins to a person as a merely outward and external legal transfer is quite untenable.
The suitability of a person to act as a substitute for others presupposes the existence of some form of solidarity between the two parties, to such a degree that the guilt of those who are being substituted for can be in some manner entered into by the substitute. Jesus was perfectly suited to die as the substitute for Israel as He was the Messiah — the one in whom the whole nation was summed up. As the Messiah He could bear the punishment that belonged to Israel because, even though He was personally innocent, He identified fully with Israel as a guilty people.
The imputation of sins to Christ should not therefore be seen as an external, legal transfer or divine decree; rather, sins were imputed to Christ as He identified with Israel. The Torah had imputed sin to Israel and Christ so identified with Israel as to take this sin upon Himself. Christ’s identification with the sinful covenant humanity under Torah in His coming in the likeness of sinful flesh and being born under the Torah were absolutely essential prerequisites for His work of bearing Israel’s sin on the cross, as was the fact that He ‘was born of the seed of David according to the flesh.’
In Scripture Israel is spoken of as God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22). The king of Israel was identified as the son of God in an even greater sense (2 Samuel 7:14). God had entered into covenant with Israel and its king in a manner that set Israel apart from all of the nations. Israel, however, had consistently broken this covenant and God punished them in various ways. Israel’s punishment was more severe than that received by the other nations of the world, due to the great blessings that Israel had received from God’s hand (Amos 3:2).
In the relationship that existed between filial relationship that existed between Israel and YHWH there was only one possible consequence for the consistent rebellion that Israel practiced — that of final destruction (see Deuteronomy 21:18f.). God had continually chastened Israel in order to teach him to obey, but Israel hardened himself in his obstinate disobedience. In His patience God held back from exacting the final penalty of entirely cutting Israel and his kings off.
God’s delay in finally judging Israel was due to His intention that the curse for Israel’s apostasy was to be borne by Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. Jesus identified with the apostate Jewish nation as their Messiah and bore the curse that the Torah pronounced over God’s rebellious son on the cross (Galatians 3:10-13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:18f.). In this manner the old rebellious (Adamic) humanity was removed and a new humanity characterized by faithfulness could take its place.
Circumcision was practiced in order to set apart Israel from the old humanity, to mark Israel out as a people of promise. Circumcision on the eighth day was to be a sign that Israel put no confidence in the flesh and looked for the coming new creation. However, the rite of circumcision itself was always incapable of finally removing the flesh. The final removal of the flesh and the circumcision of the heart of the people of God was accomplished by the cross of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:11).
A further problem with the common forms of penal substitution is that they operate primarily in terms of sins as discrete acts and seem to give little attention to Sin as a hostile force and realm of bondage. I have already criticized this understanding of sin in reference to the doctrine of hell.
The problem comes when hell is viewed as the retributive punishment for the discrete sins of individuals. This approach raises the question of God’s justice. How can God be just and yet subject individuals to eternal punishment for the sins that they have committed in a finite lifetime? This is an objection that is frequently raised by conditionalists. All sorts of responses are given to this objection. Some argue that hell is eternal because sin continues in hell forever; others argue that hell is eternal because sins committed against an infinite God demand an infinite punishment. I am not sure that either of these proposed solutions satisfactorily accounts for the problem.
In tackling these problems I believe that it is important to question some of our assumptions. First of all, those who operate using the idea of retributive punishment tend to think in terms of justice requiring the imposition of equivalent suffering. The principle is that of the lex talionis — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The problem with this approach is that it neglects the fact that sin is the breaking of relationship, not merely of a law. God’s response to sin should not be thought of as merely conforming to something natural law like the lex talionis; rather, God’s response to sin is a personal one.
I believe that, as Western theologians have tended to treat the atonement as something like a balancing of cosmic legal books, sight has been lost of the character of God’s judgment against sin. Sin is a relationship of hostility to God and the judgment of sin does not ultimately take the character of a sum of retributive punishment in response to individual sins, but that of final death and separation from God.
I believe that it can be unhelpful to think of death as God’s retributive punishment for sin. Death is certainly, in some senses, a punishment from God, but within a filial relationship with God — which Adam enjoyed in the garden and Israel enjoyed under the Law — things do not function in the same way as they do within a scheme of retributive justice. Within a filial relationship there is certainly punishment for disobedience, but the punishment exercised by a father is not to be confused by the punishment exercised by a judge operating according to the lex talionis. If we are to understand God’s judgment upon humanity in Adam and against rebellious Israel, we must always appreciate that the character of the judgment presupposes a loving covenantal relationship. Adam and Israel suffer God’s jealous anger, which is nothing but the revelation of the fiery strength of His love.
I believe that one of the consequences of evangelicalism’s general failure to understand that the Law was the covenant document is seen in its preoccupation with retributive justice. The loving Father God pleading with his wayward son to turn back to Him is re-imagined as the vindictive and rigorous judge who demands retribution for everything that goes against His perfect standard of justice. The view of divine justice propagated by many evangelicals presents us with a God whose righteousness is chiefly concerned with exacting equivalent suffering or compensation for sins committed against Him, rather than with the restoration of relationships.
Under the Torah, persistent rebellion in a filial relationship was punishable by death. However, I do not believe that it is really helpful to try to view this punishment in terms of retribution. The punishment is God’s judgment upon persistent rebellion, but is not really one that is retributive in character. Adam’s expulsion from the garden and his subjection to death was a God-ordained consequence of rebellion, but it was not a retributive punishment.
Joel Garver has argued that it is unhelpful to describe covenantal relationships such as marriage as ‘conditional’. A true relationship between a husband and a wife, or a child and a parent is not constituted by conditions in a contractual manner (‘you do this, I’ll do that’); rather, the relationship is constituted by unconditional reciprocity. Within these relationships you are not merely seeking to satisfy certain conditions, but are living in a loving relationship. Conditions only come into play when the relationship breaks down in some manner or other.
A father’s relationship to his son is not essential contractual; the son is not an employee seeking to earn his way. When the son is disobedient there are punishments. The design of these punishments is not ultimately that of imposing equivalent suffering, but of restoring the relationship. The punishments come as a consequence of damaged relationships and if we think of them in terms of retribution all that we do is mischaracterize the relationship that exists between a father and his son. The father is principally concerned with the maintaining of a true relationship between himself and his son, not the maintaining of some abstract principle of justice.
When the relationship between father and son is broken irreparably there is the ultimate punishment of death. This punishment is best seen, I believe, as the final consequence of sin’s breaking of the relationship rather than as a retributive punishment for particular sinful acts. The death serves to declare the irremediable brokenness of the relationship; it is not a retributive punishment for a failure to meet certain conditions that supposedly constitute the relationship.
Adam’s relationship with God was not contractual but filial and covenantal. Within the relationship that Adam enjoyed with God, God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not a condition of the type: ‘if you eat of this tree, then I will kill you.’ Rather, God’s statement was: ‘in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ Adam’s relationship with God was not constituted by such conditions as the ‘covenant of works’ doctrine might suggest. Adam was blessed and was to live in the loving reciprocity of eucharistic life with God. It was in Adam’s abandoning of this relationship in order to take for himself the forbidden fruit that death came.
I believe that the Bible speaks of death primarily as something brought about by sin, rather than seeing it primarily as something brought as a punishment from God. After the Fall God gave man over to experience the consequences of his sinful rebellion (i.e. death); He did not inflict death upon man as revenge for his rebellion. In the OT, when a son was put to death for persistent rebellion the judgment was not one of retribution, but of giving over to the ultimate consequences of his actions.
When someone goes to hell it is primarily as a result of the fact that they are, in Adam, no longer living in fellowship with God but are, through sin, hostile to Him. Eternal death is the final consequence of humanity’s willful turning away from life in relationship with God, and not some retributive punishment.
The purpose of Christ’s death was not primarily that of compensating or taking the punishment for the sins of the past, but that of establishing the gracious foundation for the future. Those who think in terms of retributive punishment often lose sight of this. Jesus came in order to bring in the new creation and the new covenant. The cross does not leave us merely as forgiven sinners, but as participants in a new creation.
In order to bring in the new world order Jesus had to deal with the old apostate humanity. He did this by bearing it down to death on the cross. Through His death and resurrection Jesus reestablished the loving reciprocity between God and man and established a new faithful humanity, governed by the Spirit. The greatest act of God the Father’s self-giving (‘who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all’) led to the giving back of humanity to God in Christ (who gave Himself up for the Church, His Bride). Eucharist fellowship between God and man was reestablished by the cross of Jesus Christ.
By being incorporated in Christ’s act of self-giving we are drawn into the relationships that exist within the Triune God. Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost are all moments in a Trinitarian movement into which the Church as Christ’s Bride is being introduced.
Now that the loving reciprocity of true relationship between God and humanity has been reestablished through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, we are drawn into this relationship by the Holy Spirit and conformed to the image of the true Son. There is no possibility of the relationship between God and humanity being broken once again as it was in the case of Adam and Israel; we have Christ Himself as assurance of this. Christ is the One who brings together God and man in both His Person and His work, so that, once joined together, they might never be separated again.
As Christians we will experience God’s chastening, but this chastening is always so that we might be conformed to Christ and know the fullness of relationship. In the new covenant, the contagious power of the rebellion of sin that operated after Adam has been replaced with a contagious faithfulness flowing from Jesus Christ Himself. We are called to be those who, by faith and repentance, live out of the perfect relationship of mature faithfulness that Christ enjoys with His Father. As we live out of His faithfulness we know the benefit of a restored relationship with God and the surety that one day we will know the fullness of the relationship that we now experience the firstfruits of.
Once the new covenant has been established, the sacrifice of Christ never needs to be repeated. Even sins committed by those within the new covenant do not require a renewed sacrifice. The new covenant represents a clear disjunction from the old covenant, when the covenant people could be exiled from God’s presence and the covenant could be broken. The new covenant can never be broken because the new covenant humanity is a completely faithful humanity. The new covenant humanity is clearly Jesus Christ Himself.
Whilst I believe that there is still clearly the possibility of individual apostasy within the new covenant, I don’t think that this in any way undermines my claim that the new covenant can never be broken. The important thing to appreciate is that the new humanity of the new covenant is not primarily our humanity, but is Christ’s humanity. Christ is ultimately (as James Jordan has observed) the promised Heart of Flesh to replace the Heart of Stone (the tablets on which the Law was written). The history of the old covenant was a history that was determined by disobedience and growing rebellion. However, the sin that was pervasive and determinative under the old covenant order lacks this power in the new covenant.
In the new covenant faithfulness is the determinative and growing principle. Jesus is the faithful human being. In Baptism we are engrafted into Him as part of His new humanity and in Him we grow and are transformed by His Holy Spirit. Our faithfulness grows out of, and is shaped by, His faithfulness. The faithfulness of Jesus Christ is the sign of the maturity of the people of God. Through the maturity of the people of God that Christ brings about, all of those baptized into Him can enter into the promised inheritance.
When the Church sins in the new covenant there is no question of the new covenant actually being broken and having to be replaced with a newer covenant, or renewed by a new sacrifice. Whilst churches and individuals who are unfaithful to the covenant face the real possibility of their being removed and cut off, the covenant itself remains intact. There is no question of the people of God as a whole being exiled from God’s presence.
In order to replace the rebellious humanity of Adam with a faithful humanity, it was necessary for Christ to deal with the entail of Adam’s rebellion. The world created by Adam’s sin was unraveled by Christ’s death. In the cross Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, bore the old covenant-breaking humanity in Adam down to death and replaced the old rebellious humanity with a new faithful humanity in Himself. In the new covenant no more sacrifices are needed as Christ has removed the root problem in His death. The root problem was the sin-governed fleshly Adamic humanity. Jesus came in ‘the flesh’, as part of this humanity (albeit not personally guilty of sin) and, in his death as the representative Messiah, sin was finally condemned in the flesh — the place where it had formerly had complete control.
Those who are baptized into Christ and abide in Him by faith have Christ’s faithfulness as the animating principle of their new existence as Christ dwells in the Church and her members by the Spirit. As they live out of the life of the One who has borne the judgment that hung over the old world order they are freed from that judgment themselves.
Divine forgiveness within the new covenant is significantly different to divine forgiveness under the old covenant. Under the old covenant God did forgive His people. However, sin was never finally and decisively dealt with. The people of God kept coming under judgment again and a renewed forgiveness was necessary. The sacrifices were continually repeated but they could never deal with the root problems of Sin and the flesh corrupted by it.
The sacrifices merely delayed the final and inevitable condemnation of sin that had to take place. The sentence of death had been cast on sin and sooner or later God had to execute this sentence. This sentence had to be executed in the place where sin had its power. The Messiah was the representative of the covenant-breaking people of God and it was in His flesh that the sentence of condemnation against sin was executed (Romans 8:3).
The ‘sin’ that was condemned should not be thought of primarily in terms of the discrete sins of individuals. The ‘sin’ that was condemned in Christ’s death is sin conceived of as a ruling force or power — Sin with a capital ‘s’. This hostile power was introduced to the world by Adam’s original sin and took over the control of the world, bringing death to all men. ‘Sin’, conceived of in this sense, certainly leads to individual acts of sin, but should not be limited to such acts.
Sin as a power stood in the way of the fulfillment of God’s purposes for creation. God had made a covenant with Abraham in order to set right the world that had gone wrong in Adam. God had designed that the world would be put to rights by means of the faithfulness of Israel. However, the shocking reality was that the Torah that God gave to Israel resulted in ‘a new lease of life’ for sin (as Wright expresses it). The power of Sin that had laid waste the universe as a result of Adam’s was, as it were, dormant like a sleeping dragon prior to the giving of the Torah (Romans 5:13; 7:9).
When the Torah was given, Sin jumped at the opportunity afforded to it and took it over (Romans 7:8). The Torah longed to give life to those to whom it was given. However, Sin employed the Torah as its means of heightening its control over the world. The Torah ended up being Sin’s means of dealing out death to Israel, who had been thoroughly infected by its power. It appeared as if the desire of the Torah had been utterly thwarted. Israel was left in a state of greater bondage to Sin than any of the nations apart from Torah.
Little did Sin realize that the giving of the Torah was God’s means of luring it out into the open. By permitting Sin to make Torah its base of operations and utterly infest the nation of Israel, God was bringing the power of Sin to full expression, so that it might finally be decisively dealt with and rendered impotent.
It is unhelpful to think primarily in terms of Christ dying for the sins of the elect throughout history. Christ certainly dies so that the elect can be delivered from Sin’s thrall and its destined judgment. However, talk about Christ ‘dying for the sins of the elect’ is at risk of being misleading. Christ dies so that Sin, which had run rampant in the old humanity and used the Torah as the means by which to intensify its dominion over Israel in particular, might be finally stripped of its power. Once the old humanity has been borne down to death and replaced by a new faithful humanity, Sin’s power is nullified and there is no condemnation left. Sin no longer can stand in the way of all of God’s promises being given to those in Christ.
The Torah longed to give true life but found itself condemning those under it as a result of the power of Sin that hijacked it. Christ can give true life because Sin has no dominion or authority in the realm that He has created by His death and life. All of those ‘in Christ’ can receive the Holy Spirit without Sin standing in the way. Now the intention of the Torah is fulfilled for all of those in Christ.
The sins for which Christ died are the sins that brought condemnation and the sentence of death upon Israel under the old covenant. Christ died as Israel’s redeeming representative, bearing the full force of the just sentence of death pronounced by the Torah upon Sin and consequently upon the covenant humanity dominated by Sin (‘the curse of the Law’). Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, bears the destiny of the whole Jewish nation and, by extension, that of the whole world, in His death. It is through His faithfulness that the world can be put to rights. Through Jesus the Messiah, God can put into effect that which He had determined to do when He first called Abraham.
Those who are baptized into Christ are liberated from the dominion of sin. Justification is God’s liberating verdict declared and put into effect in the event of Baptism. In Baptism God declares that there is no condemnation over us. Even though we still sin from day to day God declares in Baptism that ultimately Sin no longer has any claims on us. How is this possible?
This is all possible because of the realm that has been created by Christ in His death and resurrection. When we are baptized into Christ that which is true of Christ becomes true of us also. This degree of identification, in turn, is possible because Jesus is the Messiah; the Messiah is the king of the people and that which is true of the king is in principle true of his people.
In Baptism we are identified with Christ in His death to the old realm of Sin and are called to live as those whose true (resurrection) life is found in Him. By faith we live our life out of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. As we live our lives out of His faithfulness, that which is true of us in principle in Christ becomes embodied in concrete practice.
Our new life is lived out as a reality-filled promise. The fullness of our new life is yet to be revealed, but is already fully realized in Christ (Colossians 3:3-4; 1 John 3:2). Our new is actually nothing less than Christ Himself. In Christ future hope becomes present reality. As we live in Christ we live out of the future. [It might be added at this point that our new life is essentially an ecclesial life; when we talk about the ‘new man’ it is a corporate and not a mere individual reality (e.g. Colossians 3:9-11).]
At the present time the old age has not finally fallen away. Nevertheless, we are those who belong to the new age that has come into existence in Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection. Our true life, in the dying embers of the old age, remains a mystery yet to be revealed in the future, but is no less real for that fact. Even though we might find it hard to believe that we really have a new existence, we should be assured of it as we look to Christ. We have been baptized into Him and He is our new existence.
We should beware of talking as if the Christian had not truly and completely died to sin. The Christian’s death to sin in Baptism is final and complete. However, there is still the possibility of the Christian committing sin. In the present, although our true life is ‘hidden with Christ in God’ we still have ‘members … on the earth’. We are able to present these members (our various faculties and of mind and body) as weapons of wickedness. Consequently we are called to put these members to death (Colossians 3:5).
In the present our bodies are dead because of sin (Romans 8:10). Death is the consequence of the reign that sin once exercised in our bodies. Our members on this earth are corrupt and will one day be finally destroyed. We are called to hasten this process by putting them to death in the present. As we put our members to death in the present, our eschatological, Spirit-governed existence will begin to emerge from the chrysalis of our current dead bodies. This, of course, should not be taken as a denigration of bodily existence. The difference between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ is not the difference between physical and ethereal existence, but is the difference between two types of animating principles. As N.T. Wright expresses it, it is more clearly analogous to the difference between a nuclear-powered ship and a steam-powered ship, rather than to the difference between a steel ship and a wooden ship.
The Spirit is now the animating principle of the Christian’s existence and the Christian is called to present his members as instruments to be wielded by Christ through the Spirit.
When we do commit sin we should continually return once again to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice in order to receive full forgiveness and cleansing. The practice of repentance and confession of sins is an essential part of Christian existence. Sins committed by members of the new covenant after Christ died at Calvary for the sins committed under the old covenant order do not require a new sacrifice. They do not require a new sacrifice because the complete and final judgment on Sin as an entire world reality was borne by Christ at Calvary. The death and resurrection of Christ created a realm in which the condemnation that had hung over the realm of Sin and Torah was removed. There is no chance of condemnation ever falling upon the ‘in Christ’ realm.
Repentance and confession of sins are key means by which we continually ensure that we are thoroughly situated in this realm. We abide in the ‘in Christ’ realm — into which we were baptized — by faith. If we apostatize from this realm by rejecting Christ we are once again subject to all the condemnation that still hangs over the old world order to which we once belonged.
As we live in the ‘in Christ’ realm we are called to cease to put our members to service the old condemned realm of Sin and devote all of our resources and faculties to the realm of Christ and the Spirit. As we do this we are assured of a great harvest and reward in the future. If we refuse to do so we will face punishment from God. God punishes His children because there are serious consequences for disobedience. God’s punishments are His means of alerting us to danger of living as if we belonged to the condemned realm of Sin. He punishes us in this manner in order to preserve us from facing the final judgment that awaits the realm of Sin (1 Corinthians 11:31-32). Those who stubbornly insist on living as if they belonged to the realm of Sin face the risk of finally being cut off and will share the final fate of the realm of Sin. By His Fatherly punishments, God seeks to warn us against persisting in such willful disobedience.
As Christians we should seek to devote all of our resources and faculties to the service of the realm of the Spirit. There are many ways of speaking about this; ‘laying up treasures in heaven’ and ‘sowing to the Spirit’ are just two of them. In 1 Corinthians 3, the apostle Paul uses the analogy of people engaged in the construction of a great building. It seems clear to me that this building is seen to be the temple of God Himself. As we engage in constructing this new edifice — fulfilling our new vocations in the body of Christ that we given to us in Baptism — we can use materials of differing qualities. Christians who are not that concerned with the establishment of God’s new temple and devote most of their resources to building their own little kingdoms on earth will one day find that fire consumes all that they own. Even though they may well be saved, they will be left singed by the flames and empty-handed. Those who have proved to be diligent and faithful builders will find themselves amply rewarded. Herein we see something of the relationship between present justification by faith and future justification by works.
By now it should be quite clear that the account of the meaning of the death of Christ that I have presented so far differs in a number of important respects from the common evangelical accounts. In particular, the whole idea that God condemned Jesus rather than condemning us is called into question, as is the idea that Christ suffered God’s retributive punishment on our behalf in order to satisfy God’s justice. The biblical position is, I believe, far more subtle than these statements might suggest. Within my next post I will go on to give a more detailed treatment of this whole issue.
...a typical person spending a typical hour in Everquest produces goods and services roughly equivalent to the value of goods and services produced by a typical Bulgarian spending a typical hour in Bulgaria.
Having commented a few days ago on the matter of scapegoating in the Reformed community and mentioned the fact that I had been enjoying reading Girard of late, I thought that it might be worthwhile to post some of the ideas that his work has served to stimulate for me. As I have been thinking about a number of other aspects of the meaning of the atonement over the last few weeks I thought that I might as well put them all together, during a brief hiatus from my Wright postings.
The following are some of the thoughts that I have been having on this subject, approaching the subject from a variety of different angles. At the moment they are somewhat disjointed and are to be read as suggestive thoughts on the subject, rather than as any final word. I have arranged them in the following scattered manner because I did not want to spend too much time organizing them into a coherent post as I hope to get back to work on Wright as soon as possible. The opinions that I express here are not ones that I would like to finally commit myself to holding; I haven’t had enough times to probe the possible implications for that. Nevertheless, I do find these positions increasingly persuasive.
The most popular forms of Reformed and evangelical doctrines of the atonement are flawed in many and various ways and should be rejected. Bringing the wrong questions to the text, doctrines of atonement have been formed that would seem strange and alien to the authors of the NT. We need to wrestle with the fact that the cross was not designed to answer our questions. Once we have appreciated this, much else follows.
I have expressed reservations in the past concerning the doctrine of limited atonement (see, for example, my brief article Limited Atonement in Perspective or my post The Limited Atonement and the Sacraments). I would now reject the language of ‘limited’ atonement in favour of ‘efficacious’ atonement, or something like that. Not only do I believe that this is a more accurate way of describing the position of the Reformed churches (as Bavinck and Berkouwer have claimed), but I also believe that limited atonement is biblically untenable and has the tendency of narrowing the scope of the atonement to a dangerous degree.
There are, of course, different forms of the doctrine of limited atonement. I find John Owen’s form of the doctrine especially obnoxious. I would not for a second think of denying that Christ’s death was efficacious, nor would I deny for a moment that the Father had a specific purpose in the giving up of His Son — a purpose that will infallibly be achieved. However, I do not view the cross as accomplishing the salvation of individuals in isolation from the work of the Spirit in conversion, for example. Owen, by speaking in terms of the cross ‘purchasing’ blessings (e.g. saving faith) for particular individuals and for them only, seems to view the cross in just such an isolation.
Those who have treated the cross in this sort of manner tend to hold to a form of theology in which the resurrection, the ascension and Pentecost are eclipsed by the cross. Compare the amount of space given to the treatment of the cross in the average Reformed systematic theology to the amount of space given to these other redemptive historical events and my point will be perfectly borne out. Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith is a classic example of this: the resurrection and ascension are given sixteen pages, almost all of them devoted to the question of historicity and no pages are given to the question of the theological significance of the resurrection. In contrast to this, the cross is given about eighty pages and almost a further one hundred pages are devoted to ‘the application of the benefits of the cross work of Christ.’ This wording alone has the tendency of marginalizing the resurrection, ascension and Pentecost.
When one reads theologians like Calvin, the cross is not absolutized in this same manner (see, for example, Institutes III.i.1).
When substitution is understood through the lens of participation, many of the common forms of limited atonement collapse. With Owen’s doctrine of limited atonement it is hard to present Christ as the One who died for the sins of the world and as the object of faith; your faith merely becomes the evidence that Christ died for you. If you are not aware of faith in your heart it is hard to know whether Christ really died for you. Faith is thrown back on itself, which is always fatal. However, if the blessings of the death of Christ are seen to be offered to all freely by the Gospel in the Word and the Sacraments, faith can be surely founded on something external to itself.
Owen’s doctrine makes one wonder why faith and repentance are really needed. Were you to die prior to faith and repentance would you be subject to God’s condemnation? If Christ truly died for you then can God require you to pay the debt that Christ has already discharged at the cross on your behalf?
The doctrine of limited atonement mutes the universalistic emphasis of much NT soteriology. Whilst it is certainly not the case that each and every individual will be saved, God’s plan of salvation involves fulfilling His purpose for humanity as a whole and not just saving a few individuals — fragments as it were — from the old fallen humanity. Christ took away the sin of the world, not just of a few individuals. The effect of the cross is cosmic in its proportions.
The doctrine of limited atonement is far too individualistic. Christ died for the sin of the world, not just for the sins of elect individuals. Whilst I reject the Arminian error, I no longer find the doctrine of limited atonement persuasive or biblically plausible. The atonement was not a shot in the dark from God’s perspective; God knows exactly what He wants to achieve by it and there is no doubt that this will be achieved. However, the doctrine of limited atonement seems to make presumptions about the character of the imputation of sin to Christ (among other things) that strike me as unnecessary. It seems to result in the downplaying of the apocalyptic character of Christ’s death and its cosmic implications in favour of largely atemporal and individualistic interpretations of the significance of the cross.
One of the biggest issues that I have with common evangelical doctrines of the atonement and with the doctrine of limited atonement in particular is the manner in which they abstract the cross from covenant history. N.T. Wright has commented in the past on the manner in which historical and theological reasons for the atonement tend to become separated. I have given occasional thought over the last while to the question of how to more closely correlate these two aspects and I would be interested to hear some of the thoughts that others might have on the matter. I am frustrated with many of the common evangelical accounts of the atonement; although they are well-intentioned, they strike me as largely detached from the narrative of Scripture itself.
Common evangelical approaches seem to abstract the cross from all historical particularities that may colour it. The cross almost becomes an event that occurs without respect to history. When I read the Gospels I am continually struck by the historical particularities that others seem to bypass as mere ‘accidents’ and I wish to do justice to them. The fact that many popular evangelical notions of the cross can’t even present us with much of a reason why Christ needed to be the Jewish Messiah in order to die for the sins of the world troubles me. The whole covenant history of the OT is largely sidelined. It is relegated to the status of mere types and shadows. I believe, however, that God’s means of redeeming the world was put into operation back in the OT, even before the incarnation. The election of Israel was essential to God’s plan for the salvation of the world. We cannot just jump from Adam to Christ.
I believe that we must accept that, in some manner or other, the history of Israel is necessary for the atonement to ‘work’. When Christ dies, He dies when the time has come — when His time to die has come; when the time for Israel to die has come. The casting away of Israel for the reconciliation of the world (Romans 11:15) is inseparably connected with the Messiah’s casting away for the world’s salvation. Christ’s death, like that of a seed falling into the ground, is only possible because the ground has already been prepared.
Under the question of the mechanism by which sin is imputed to Christ we find perhaps the strongest movement away from an historical rooted doctrine of the atonement. Many of the evangelicals that I encounter seem to think in terms of the idea of the discrete sins of elect individuals being imputed to Christ in some extrinsic and atemporal manner. The accumulated demerit of the sins of the elect is totted up before the sins have ever been committed and Christ undergoes the required amount of punishment. I am increasingly dissatisfied by this approach.
Somehow or other, I believe that it is by means of Israel that the sins of world were laid upon Christ. The Torah draws onto Israel the sin that will be dealt with by Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. The imputation of sins is in some sense, therefore, to be understood as an historical process taking place in Israel.
The Bible speaks of sin not being imputed where there is no law (Romans 5:13). The purpose of the Torah was, among other things, that of turning sins into transgressions and imputing sin to Israel. For Christ to take the burden of the sin of the world upon Himself, He had to take that burden up at the point where it had been placed — under the Torah. To do this it was necessary that He be the Christ or Messiah of Israel — the one in whom the whole nation is represented. We must always appreciate that sins are not the same thing as trangressions (cf. Romans 5:13-14). Transgressions are sins committed under Law. The Torah was never something general to the whole of mankind. Only Israel received the Torah and, consequently, only Israel was in a position to transgress the commandment of God in the same sort of manner that Adam was. This, by the way, is one of the observations that, in my understanding, reinforces the notion that the Law is always to be thought of as a covenant document.
The Torah was something that was exclusive to Israel. Consequently, the ‘curse of the Law’ was, I am convinced, in its most important sense, Israel-specific. Although the curse of the Law (Torah) had ramifications for the whole cosmos, Israel’s relationship to the curse of the Law was very different to that of the Gentiles. When Paul speaks about Christ dealing with the ‘curse of the Law’ in His death (Galatians 3:13) we should recognize that it is simply not the case that every Christian was under this curse before they were converted, or even that every human being before the death of Christ could truly be said to be under this curse; being under the curse of the Law was something peculiar to Israel.
I believe that we should have the courage to admit that the Westminster Confession, among many other Reformed documents, is wrong, both in equating sin with transgression and in generalizing the ‘curse of the Law’ (WCF VI.6). Confusion in these areas will hamper our attempt to understand Pauline theology.
When the Bible speaks about the relationship between Christ and sin it does not, I believe, speak of the imputation of sin to Christ in terms of some external forensic transaction, but in terms of personal identification. Saying that Christ was ‘made … to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21) goes far further than merely saying that our sins were ‘put to His account.’ The apostle Paul speaks of Christ being born under the Law and coming in the likeness of sinful flesh. The atonement that Christ achieved in His death necessitated His identifying with the people of Israel under the Law. The Torah had imputed sin to Israel, not as an external transfer of guilt or sin from one group to another, but as a result of that which was in reality true of Israel. When Jesus died He died as the Messiah, as the one who summed up this sinful covenant-breaking Israel, the Israel that was still in Adam, in Himself. In order to act as a saving representative and die vicariously Christ had to personally identify Himself with Israel under Torah, which is what He did in His incarnation and ministry.
In the OT Israel inherits the role of Adam. After the calling of Abraham the hope and destiny of humanity as a whole devolves upon Israel. When God’s new humanity will be formed, it will be formed through Abraham’s seed. The messiah is the one in whom the whole covenant people is summed up. In the light of all of this we see that, when Christ died, He died as the One carrying the destiny of the entire human race — as the representative of all of humanity, as the second Adam or the true Man. It was the role that Jesus played as the Messiah of Israel that made His death vicarious.
The death of Christ takes place at a specific time — a climactic moment in covenant history. Christ’s death spells the end of the old covenant order and establishes the new covenant order. It is an apocalyptic event and it was necessary for it to take place at a particular time in history. I have never been entirely satisfied by the treatment that these things receive in many evangelical doctrines of the atonement. The individualistic approach that they adopt tends to abstract the cross from covenant history and also end up losing sight of the radical newness of the new covenant.
The sin that is dealt with by the cross should be thought of in a covenantal manner. When Christ died for sin He was not dying for the accumulated total of the demerit of the sins of the elect throughout history, rather He was dying in order to deal with the old world order that had been established by the sin of Adam and with the old covenant order under which the burden of the sin of the old world order had been gathered.
The Scripture declares: And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15). Christ died for us in order to save us as individuals; however, the sins which He bore were those that had bound the old world and Israel in particular under the slavery of Sin — not so much for the discrete sins of elect individuals throughout history, as for the covenant-breaking of Israel. He died in order to establish the new covenant and do away with the broken old covenant.
Whilst every Christians should confess with Paul: ‘[the Son of God] loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20) — any account of the cross that somehow empties it of its deeply personal character is a false one — we should never lapse into individualistic accounts of what the cross was designed to achieve.
We should appreciate that, whilst it is in the cross that we find our sins dealt with, the manner in which the cross deals with our sins is not as atomistic acts of disobedience, but as part of an overarching reality. The Bible speaks of Christ dying to sin in His death and of our dying to sin with Christ in the rite of Baptism (Romans 6:1-11). ‘Sin’ is here seen as the domain of Sin, a power and a realm of control.
Sin had made the Torah into its royal palace and its central stronghold. In order to deal with Sin, Christ came to the place where Sin’s power was concentrated; He came in the likeness of sinful flesh and was born under the Torah. In His life and ministry Christ took the battle to where the Accuser was. He exorcized demons that controlled the synagogues of Israel. In His death, burial and resurrection, He wrested control of the world, the grave and the heavens from Satan and enabled the people of God to enter into the promised inheritance. In His death Jesus, dying as Israel’s Messiah, bore the full burden of God’s penalty upon His people for their unfaithfulness under the Old Covenant. In the process He condemned the whole old world order that had existed, stripped its powers of their strength and established a new realm in Himself. The demonic powers had gained their strength by the judgment of death held out over the old realm. Christ took this full judgment upon Himself in order to bring His people out from slavery and into freedom. He emancipated the saints in Sheol; He dealt with the Law that shut in Israel and which shut out the Gentiles; He threw Satan down from the heavens and brought His people in.
It is within Baptism that we are set free from the old world order and brought into the new world order — the new covenant and new creation — established by Christ. We are baptized into His death, and are raised up as participants in the new creation order. Our sins are dealt with as we die to the old world order and are engrafted into Christ in Baptism. In Christ the judgment of death no longer hangs over us because, by our Baptism into Christ, we have passed through this judgment and out the other side. Our death to sin(s) in Baptism is a definitive, one-off event and should not be thought of in terms of a gradual process. The fact that we have died to sin(s) in this manner prompts us to live as those of whom this is true. Our death to sin lies at the start of the life of holiness and should not be thought of as the result of it (1 Peter 2:24; Romans 6:1-11).
This sort of experience may still be uncommon for Americans, but we Brits are already quite used to it. You invent a great sport, introduce the rest of the world to it, and it won't be long before you get consistently beaten at it.
I must admit though, I would prefer to lose to Puerto Rico than to the Australians any day.
You know, I was feeling quite upbeat until half an hour ago, and then I read through this. The level to which such discussions on internet fora can degenerate never ceases to amaze me. Besides the ridiculous charges against Mark Horne, we are treated to some quite ridicuolous claims.
Fred Greco claims of paedocommunion that it 'is not only outside the Westminster Standards, it is contrary to the teaching of every branch of professing Western Christendom.' Concerning those who hold to paedocommunion he writes:—
...the Church must use its authority and discipline those who teach such heresy. The Church must not make the same mistake Machen made in "debating" a fundamental issue in journals or on the internet. Men need to be denied ordination, denied licensure, denied transfer and charged.
Regarding the denial of paedocommunion he writes:—
Somehow I think a doctrine that has been unanimous among the Reformed, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and even Romanists qualifies as an essential of the faith. The only thing that probably has greater uniform witness in the church is the Trinity and the Second Coming (Oh, I forgot, that is under attack today also by hyper-preterists).
Quite apart from the fact that this statement is quite demonstrably counter-factual and ignores the Eastern Orthodox churches and the testimony of Church Fathers such as Cyprian and Augustine, the idea that unanimity alone qualifies something as an 'essential of the faith' seems ridiculous to me.
The other thing that interests me is the length to which many modern Reformed Christians will go to conform such men as Luther and Augustine to their own image. I mean, if Mark Horne is a heretic, then Augustine is doubly so: he had justification wrong, paedocommunion wrong and he actually believed that Baptism did something! Of course, condemning Augustinianism will not go down well in Reformed circles and so they seek to rehabilitate Augustine by emasculating his ecclesiology, confident of the fact that most people have little desire to understand Augustine on his own terms.
Luther suffers the same gruesome fate at the hands of the Reformed revisionists. They proclaim Luther's doctrine of sola fide with all their might and denounce as heretics any who might undermine it by speaking of an efficacious Baptism. They suggest that Luther didn't really go to the grave believing in such superstitions as the Real Presence.
I am increasingly disgusted by the shocking misrepresentations and lies that go on in Reformed circles. As I have been studying N.T. Wright over the last couple of years, for example, I have also tried to read as many of his critics as I can. I have been appalled by the sheer number of claims that Wright holds to a position that he repeatedly and strenuously denies. It is not hard to produce evidence that demonstrates that some well-respected names in Reformed circles have borne false witness against Wright. Even if Wright were the blackest heretic ever to walk this earth, we should not misrepresent his position.
So much of the Reformed 'scholarship' that I have come across in online articles, e-mail discussions, audio lectures and books of late has consisted of unsubstantiated and libelous claims about ministers of the gospel. Sometimes I wonder whether this is all hardwired into people's ways of thinking. People believe that the unity of the denomination can only be preserved by uniting against something else. Whilst they try to maintain a semblance of high principle in the process, in reality the standard by which such victims are chosen are not very high.
Reformed churches reinvent themselves as a reactionary movement. Calvinism is reinvented as anti-Arminianism; Protestantism is reduced to anti-Romanism. Denominational integrity is preserved by demonizing other movements within the Church of Jesus Christ. Deep down, people realize that the preservation of the unity of the denomination necessitates painting those who don't entirely agree with their position in the blackest terms possible.
Such churches will regularly wheel out the old strawmen of Roman Catholicism and burn the Papacy in effigy once again. Such an action enables them to preserve their identity. The fact that the Roman Catholicism that they speak of is in most cases a gross caricature does not bother them. They are not aiming for truth, only unity. The unity they seek to maintain can be maintained by the ritual attack upon the caricature; it will be threatened by any attempt to shed light upon the demonization that has taken place. The revelation that the papal churches aren't as black as they have historically been painted will undermine the unifying effect of the act of burning the strawman and render the whole process impotent. As soon as people begin to realize that Roman Catholics — although clearly wrong — are not half as bad as many people paint them, something else must be found to preserve denominational unity.
In such situations, or in any situation when the denomination finds itself unsettled, it is not surprising to see people turn upon particular movements within the denomination. The demonization of these movements takes place when some leading persons within the denomination with little understanding of, or little concern to understand, what the movements actually teach start to produce hostile reviews or attacks; these are then mindlessly echoed by others within the denomination. The unity, which was earlier threatened, is now regained as all begin to converge on the chosen scapegoat. The act of scapegoating, whether the scapegoat is Norman Shepherd, Mark Horne or anyone else, is the means whereby unity can be achieved.
No one should be surprised that gross misrepresentations characterize all of this; misrepresentation is generally essential to the whole scapegoating process. The scapegoating process is laid bare by the truth and is rendered inoperative. It is important that people are not exposed to the truth. Of course, those involved do not believe that they are scapegoating at all — scapegoaters never do. However, I believe that it is possible to see all of the chief hallmarks of the scapegoating mechanism in the manner in which supporters of Norman Shepherd, N.T. Wright and Auburn Avenue have been treated in many Reformed circles.
Of course, a society that is truly founded on the truth of justification by faith alone does not have to resort to such an approach to retain unity. Unity for such a church is achieved in a manner that resists the scapegoating impulse.
...and yes, I have been enjoying reading Girard lately.
I received this a few days ago, but unfortunately I cannot watch it until my brother Mark returns from his time on the MV Doulos. I will also be quite busy over the next couple of weeks, so I probably would not have the time even if he were here. It is unlikely that I will post anything much in the next few days.
Over the past year or so I have become increasingly aware of a tendency in myself and in others to read Scripture in a manner that mutes many of the important things that the text is trying to say. A couple of years ago I would be prone to approach the text with a set of questions, questions which I was sure the text was designed primarily to address. I believed that the narrative parts of the Old Testament were primarily given to us in order to show God’s power in preserving the ancestors of Christ until He was born. They also were designed to give us helpful character examples. In addition, one could read these verses and find many inspiring truths for your personal walk with God.
When it came to the characters of the OT and the place of Israel as a whole, I believed that their primary purpose was that of giving us patterns to follow and to avoid in one’s individual relationship with Jesus. Now I will readily admit that none of these beliefs about Scripture are entirely mistaken: we can learn many principles for our personal Christian lives by reading the OT. Nevertheless, as time went on, I began to wonder why so much of the OT seemed alien and appeared to lack significance for my current situation. The OT felt like a field that had already long been harvested; I wondered why I bothered to live on the scattered gleanings that remained when I could find all the rich devotional fuel I required in the NT. Moving from the OT into the NT was like leaving the wilderness for the Promised Land.
Straining to hear devotional nuggets in the text of the OT was akin to trying to understand the faint and thready signal from a foreign radio station. The meaning of the text seemed elusive and distant, fading in and out; all that I could hear amidst the crackling, whistling and background chatter was fragmentary and disjointed.
As time went on, however, I began to discern more and more of the treasures of the OT. Far from feeling exiled from the text, I began to feel thoroughly at home in it. No longer did I feel like an eavesdropper on a conversation wholly designed for another: the text sparkled with relevance for the situation in which I found myself. Passages that had appeared barren and fruitless in the past became scintillating and exciting. It slowly dawned on me that the problem I had faced earlier was not really due to any weakness in the ‘signal’ of the OT message; the problem was with me — I had never been properly attuned to it. By bringing the wrong questions to the text I had been trying to capture a ghostly signal and missing the true one.
As time has progressed the importance of the questions that we bring to the text has impressed itself more and more upon me. In the past I had always presumed that my questions were self-evidently the right ones. This attitude began to evaporate when I stopped interrogating the text with my own questions and started to attune my ear in order to discover what questions I should be asking. The degree to which I had missed the point of much of the OT gradually dawned on me.
I say all of this in order to make a point that I have made on many other occasions before, namely, that we should be prepared to submit ourselves to the text (OT and NT) and not act as if we do not need to be attuned to the text in order to understand it. Along these lines, I must confess to getting frustrated with people who talk about the perspicuity of Scripture as if it denied this point. In my understanding, the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture teaches, as it were, that the signal of the Word of God is not of itself faint or indistinct. However, it does not teach that every individual Christian is properly attuned to this signal. As Christians we should continually be aware of our need to be re-attuned to God’s truth. No one of us receives God’s signal perfectly. Those who adamantly insist upon asking their own questions and refuse to submit to the questions that the text would have us ask should not be surprised if they miss much of the richness of the text as a result and only hear a tinny and stuttering signal.
God’s process of re-attuning us involves a number of different elements. It involves the sacraments, considered liturgy, the life of discipleship, the ministry of those who have been gifted within the Church and the reading and hearing of the Word itself. In consequence, those who, for instance, presume that they can attune themselves to God’s truth apart from those whom the Spirit has gifted within the Church are presumptuous and fall into a form of self-righteousness. It is only as we acknowledge the fact that we are naturally un-attuned to the voice of our Creator that we can be re-attuned by grace and avoid the pit of self-righteousness.
These lessons seem so basic, but I believe that few if any of us are beyond the need for relearning them. I know from personal experience that this process of conforming our questions to the questions that Scripture would have us ask is a difficult and a painful one. I sometimes find within myself a reluctance to accept that what I used to think was primary might actually be, at best, a mere overtone in the text. Romans and Galatians, for example, are not mere polemics against the bare sin of self-righteousness, much as I might initially have desired them to be.
Despite the difficulty and pain, the process is also extremely rewarding. As I have learnt to accept that the meanings of such books as Romans and Galatians are not what I have originally supposed them to be, and submitted myself to hearing their words anew, I have been surprised to discover that their voice seems richer and deeper than they ever did before. Their voice resonates in parts of my consciousness in which the text of these books has never resonated before. Even those truths that I had originally presumed the books to be primarily concerned with have gradually become, much to my amazement, more sharply defined.
The unhelpful side effect of all of this can come in the form of a temptation to impatience with brothers and sisters in Christ who still filter the text through the framework of their questions and fail to allow their framework to be challenged by the text. When I feel this temptation I try my best to remind myself of where God has taken me from and, more importantly, how much further I need to go. Such an impatience with others could well be nothing less than a symptom of the sin’s re-emergence.
Nonetheless, this said, I still think that it is extremely important to continually reiterate the necessity of submitting ourselves to the text. There is always a danger of viewing the text as if it were an ox to be yoked with our own agendas, rather than taking the yoke of the text itself upon us. We should be prepared to accept delayed gratification with regard to our questions and not allow them to screen out what the Bible itself is saying to us. We need to pay careful attention to what Wright has called the ‘foundational note’ of the scriptural narrative. Once we have grasped the fundamental note, the overtones will follow. However, if we focus on the overtones to the neglect of the fundamental note we will end up missing much of the point.
I honestly believe that evangelicals are guilty of just such a neglect in most parts of the Scripture. We too easily short-circuit the reasoning of Scripture in order to use it to tick our boxes. We burn off the dross of the Jew/Gentile debates in Paul in order to extract the gold of the doctrine of justification; we peel off the political dimensions of the gospel message in order to focus on a largely internal personal religion; we abstract Jesus from the narrative of the old and new testaments in order to see Him in a manner that bypasses all of the specificity of the historical setting of His ministry. Brethren, these things ought not so to be. Only as we reject such an approach will we come to realize the full power of the story of Scripture, something that totally eclipses and far exceeds any one of our petty agendas.
Don Garlington has done us all a great service in helpfully providing an online excerpt of N.T. Wright's chapter from the 1980 book The Great Acquittal (now long out of print), entitled Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism. One might be excused were one to get the impression, as I originally did, that the lengthy excerpt provided by Garlington included the entirety of Wright's chapter. Recently, however, I managed to obtain a second-hand copy of the original book and I discovered that five pages from the end of the article were not included in Garlington's excerpt. Here are some quotes:—
Modern evangelicalism is not in a position to be smug about the weakness of others, as though we had kept on the high road while our Catholic or radical brethren wandered about in the fog. We have tended to stand closer to Bultmann than we like to realize, with his emphasis on faith as experience unconnected with history, his existentialist call for decision, his view of justification as the establishment of a personal relationship with God, his wedge between justification and the historical people of God. That is why the charismatic movement, and movements for whom assurance is a matter of religious feelings (and what a pastoral disaster that is!), have gained such a ready following; why we have problems with our theology of evangelism; why we lose assurance if for any reason God seems remote; why we find ecclesiology so difficult and apparently compromising, and imagine that we can safeguard the doctrine of justification by insisting on low churchmanship, which is only marginally better than attempting to safeguard low-church traditions by insisting on the doctrine of justification.
All these things happen because we have taken the doctrine of justification out of the context of the covenant and reduced it to the idea that what God wants is inward religion instead of outward performances, churchgoing, sacraments and the like (and then we wonder why the House Church movement has such an appeal!). But this reduction of Christianity is an attractive and dangerous mistake. It is attractive because it fits in so well with the Spirit of the Age — with the remnants of the Romantic movement, the heritage of Idealism, the popular existentialism which leads to the cult of sincerity over aginst objective truth, the current emphasis on doing one's own thing instead of conforming to external norms. We latch on to the idea of inner personal religion (which we flatter ourselves is the same thing as justification by faith) because we find it a place where we can enjoy a good deal of Christianity (quietly forgetting the awkward bits, the Church and sacraments, that don't fit) and a good deal of the twentieth century. And this mistake is dangerous because it sets up a false either-or which precipitates evangelicals into being anti-Church and anti-sacraments: it is dangerous because it devalues propositional faith and objective truth, leaving doctrines like the incarnation as mere shibboleths without significance for our actual theology.
The irony of all this, and to my mind our great danger at the moment, is that in many evangelical circles people are preaching existentialism in Pauline dress and imagining it to be our biblical and Reformation heritage.
I thought that I would also share this quote with you:—
...if God has declared that we belong to his covenant family, it is time that we as evangelicals started to take that family seriously. Precisely because we believe in justification, we must get our view of the Church sorted out, and have done once and for all with the watery semi-Baptist theology which has been creeping into evangelical Anglicanism over the last decade or two. Justification belongs with the covenant signs: baptism is the sacrament of entry into God's people, the sign of regeneration (in fulfilment of God's covenant promises), and thus faith, which follows and does not precede regeneration, need not precede baptism, though if it does not follow afterwards there will consequently be no justification. Again, the Lord's Supper is the great covenant sign, the physical embodiment of the doctrine of justification. As Cranmer saw so well, God declares in the eucharist that those who eat with faith really do belong to the Messiah's people.... Justification is not an individualist's charter, but God's declaration that we belong to the covenant community. If we are not taking that community seriously, we have not understood justification.
OK then, maybe one more!
The church is thus to be a living demonstration of justification by faith, in which each member is given by the whole community the security of acceptance not on the basis of who they are in human terms of race, class or colour, not on the basis of works, but simply because of shared faith in the risen Lord Jesus. Except in extreme cases of open and unrepentant sin (and then only because such sin is evidence of unbelief), we must not apply ethical tests as a basis for fellowship, particularly the little quasi-moral rules which are designed more to safeguard an insecure position than to promote genuine holiness. Justification provides all the security anyone needs: and the church is to be the community which will be secure enough to welcome into its fellowship all those who, however simply, and however naïvely or unclearly, share its faith. This is the clue to what a friend of mine called 'the mental health of justification by faith': to believe that God really does accept you, and to believe that and practise it as a church in our acceptance of one another, is to turn away from paranoid self-justification and self-defence and to experience the deepest possible personal and corporate security. And if we dare to apply that to our current identity problems, and to our relationships with non-evangelical Christians in our church and outside it, I believe that our whole approach to such relationships, and to the church politics they involve us in, will become radically different from what they are. This is in no way to advocate doctrinal indifference. Precisely because I take doctrine, and particularly justification by faith, with the utmost seriousness, I long to see evangelicals, and the Church as a whole, becoming in this way a living embodiment of the Gospel.
Through Torah comes Knowledge of Sin
A second reason why Paul opposes the Judaizers’ employment of the Torah as a charter of national privilege is to be found in the fact that, when appealed to, the Torah merely served to remind those who possessed it of their own sin. Marking oneself out by possession of the Torah is futile; the Torah merely ‘accents, and indeed accentuates, the Adamic condition, the sinful and death-bound position, of those who embrace it.’226 It cannot grant life and the Spirit and, consequently, is powerless to alleviate the plight of sinful Israel, only serving to make it worse by placing them under a curse.
Whilst the Jews might think that the Torah marks them out as different from the Gentiles, in fact it reveals them to be quite the same.227 Paul denies that any flesh can be justified by the εργα νομου, not only because the εργα νομου serve to draw a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, but also because the Torah which the Jews possess can never be the basis for justification as it merely serves to further condemn them. The Jews who rest in their having been given the Torah as the basis of their justification at the Great Assize will find that appealing to the Torah will be like ‘calling a defense witness who endorses what the prosecution has been saying all along.’228
The Torah is thwarted in its desire to bring life, because Israel is still ‘in Adam’.
The Torah, unable to do what it would have wished because of sin and the flesh, cannot but stand over against, and accuse, the very people whose covenant membership it appeared to mark out.229
This leads to a problem: the promises that God made to Abraham were entrusted to Israel as the agents of promise. However, the Torah held a curse out over Israel and this curse had come true. The Torah itself seemed to stand in the way of any fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham of a worldwide family. Just as the Torah served to ‘shut out’ the Gentiles, it also served to ‘shut up’ the Jews.230 How could the promises made to Abraham ever be fulfilled when the curse of the Torah hung over Israel?231
For Wright the answer is found in the cross of Jesus the Messiah. The Torah has served to draw sin on to Israel and place Israel under a curse. On the cross, as the representative Messiah, Jesus ‘is Israel, going down to death under the curse of the law, and going through that curse to the new covenant life beyond.’232 The (Israel-specific) curse of the Torah out of the way and the power of sin (the force that took control of the world and human beings as a result of Adam’s trespass233) broken where it had formerly been concentrated under the Torah, the life that the Torah had always intended to give can now be given. The blessing of Abraham can arrive at its destination. The Torah no longer ‘shuts up’ the Jew and it no longer ‘shuts out’ the Gentile.
Relativization of the Torah
Within his treatment of it in his epistles, Paul both relativizes and reaffirms the Torah.234 On the one hand, the Torah plays a temporary role in its marking out of Israel as distinct from the Gentiles. If taken absolutely, the Torah would lead to the nullification of the promise made to Abraham, because it would perpetuate the Jew/Gentile distinction, leading to a ‘plurality of families’ and not one worldwide family characterized by faith.235 The Torah marked out Israel from the nations in order to
…collect sin into one place, to allow it to show its true colours, so that it may then (though not by the Torah itself) be dealt its decisive death blow.236
Wright argues that the role of the Torah in demarcating ethnic Israel was like that of establishing a quarantine.237 Israel was to be the solution to the disease of sin afflicting the human race and the problem of death in the cosmos. The problem was that those who were intended to be the ‘doctors’ were infected with the disease themselves. The Torah served the purpose of establishing a temporary quarantine until the medicine could be applied. Once the disease had been dealt with by the work of the Messiah the need for the quarantine was removed.
Whilst Israel was under the quarantine of Torah, the Torah, ‘so far from delivering its possessors from the entail of Adam’s sin, actually appears to exacerbate it for them’ — the Torah came in so that the trespass would multiply (Romans 5:20).238 The Jews who appealed to their possession of the gift of the Torah and their practice of the εργα νομου as a basis for justification forgot that, far from isolating Israel from the entail of Adam’s sin, the purpose of the Torah was to allow the entail of Adam’s sin to achieve its fullest expression in Israel itself, so that, once concentrated in one place, it might then be decisively dealt with.239
The Torah is not therefore against God’s promises. Rather, it is one of the necessary steps towards their fulfillment. The problem was not ultimately with the Torah, but with the sin and flesh of those who were under it. Of course, once the problem of sin, the flesh and the resulting curse of the Torah has been decisively dealt with by the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, retaining the ‘quarantine regulation’ of the Torah is both unnecessary and impermissible. This retention of the ‘quarantine regulation’ of the Torah within the Church, where the problem has been dealt with, is part of the error of the Judaizers.
To return to the Torah, in the manner that the Judaizers did, is an attempt to turn back the hands of the clock of redemptive history once the hour has struck, to go on living as if in darkness even though the sun has risen, to cling to the old way of life that has been declared dead by the cross of Christ.240 Besides all of this, those who adopt this approach fail to realize that the Torah was never capable of giving the life to which it pointed and merely served to exacerbate the ‘sinful and death-bound position’ of those who embraced it.241 In all of this we can observe Paul’s ‘relativization’ of the Torah.
Reaffirmation of the Torah
Whilst, on the one hand, Torah serves only a temporary role, on the other hand the Torah is reaffirmed by the work of Christ. The apostle Paul makes plain that Torah is not to blame for the death that came to those who were under it. Alongside this vindication of the Torah, Paul speaks of the fulfillment of the Torah in the people of God, by Christ and the Spirit. That which the Torah was itself unable to achieve is achieved by Christ and the Spirit.242 Far from a bald rejection of the Torah as outmoded, Paul speaks of the Torah, not as having been abolished, but as having been fulfilled. The new covenant people of God, those who have been justified by faith apart from the εργα νομου, actually fulfill the Torah.243 Indeed, for Wright, the Torah in some sense still serves as the ‘covenant boundary-marker’ under the new covenant, demarcating the true people of God.244
Every time that God’s Spirit works to bring life to a person, the purpose of the Torah is thereby fulfilled. In some manner the Torah is even implicated in its own fulfillment. Wright writes in his treatment of Romans 8:2:—
It would have been easy to write “for the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free,” but Paul seldom settles for the easy option. He has spent a whole chapter arguing that, despite appearances (and despite many commentators!), the Torah remains God’s law, holy and just and good, and that it is not guilty of causing the death that comes to those who embrace it. Now he takes a step further: When God acts in Christ and by the Spirit the Torah is somehow involved as well, somehow present and active. Speaking of Torah, after all, was a thoroughly Jewish way of speaking of God’s saving action.245
Challenging the Powers
We have already seen two reasons for Paul’s opposition to the Judaizers’ use of the Torah as a charter of national privilege. To these we must add a third: by asserting the necessity of such practices as circumcision, the Judaizers were presenting the Jewish Torah as a power that Gentile Christians must submit themselves to, in addition to their submission to Jesus Christ Himself. To Paul, such a position was tantamount to idolatry.
Paul speaks of the existence of a variety of ‘powers’ and ‘authorities’ under the old world order (or ‘present age’). The power structures of the ‘present age’ can take a number of different forms. They can be political or economic earthly authorities, for example. In Paul’s theology, all of these powers receive their authority as a trust from God. There is a demonic dimension to these powers in Paul’s understanding: ‘Anything to which human beings offer the allegiance proper only to God is capable of assuming, and exerting, a sinister borrowed power.’246 Paul never sees a sharp distinction between the earthly powers and the supernatural demonic powers.247 These demonic powers operated ‘through the oppressive systems that enslaved or tyrannized human beings.’248
In Jewish thought there were different guardian angels or deities which looked after the various nations. In a calculated move, Paul casts the Jewish Torah in the role of a guardian angel or tribal deity alongside those that ruled over the other nations; it looked after Israel and kept her separate from the nations, taking its place among the other local presiding ‘deities’ of the various areas and races of the world.249 In Paul’s theology, the Torah (as it operated in the Mosaic economy) was something that had become just such an oppressive system, particularly as it was hijacked by Sin. It was from the Torah that Sin gained its greatest power in the old world order.250 The Torah had kept Israel in a ‘state of virtual slavery’.251Christ and the PowersIn the old world order these angels and ‘deities’ held authority over the world and the human race. However, in the new world order brought in by the resurrection and ascension of Christ, the place of man relative to the angels is changed. Jesus Christ has become superior to the angels and He is the representative man.252 All of those ‘in’ Him will one day share fully in this role and must in the present consider themselves in the light of this fact.253 One of the implications of the fact that Christ has a position over that of the angels is that He is also superior to the Torah that they brought to Israel.254
On the cross of Calvary, Jesus the Messiah was crucified by the highest religion and the best government that the world had ever seen, angry at His challenge to their authority.255 However, by the cross He triumphed over these powers and all of the other powers that held humanity under their sway. By crucifying their rightful sovereign, the powers exposed themselves for what they really were and signed their own death warrants.256
Christ has achieved the victory over all the powers and authorities. This victory has now to be implemented, and this implementation will be achieved ‘through the work, and proclamation, of the church.’257
The reconciling mission of the church in the world therefore includes the task of proclaiming to the present ‘power structures’ that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, and summoning them to climb down from his throne and take up their proper responsibilities in looking after his world. Having been defeated as rebels, they now can be reconciled as subjects. They do not own the world. They do not hold the keys of death and hell. They (the Law included), being essentially of ‘this age’, do not hold final authority over those who belong already to the ‘age to come’.258
Just as Christ came out from under the dominion of these authorities in His death, so all of those who belong to Him experience the same liberation (a liberation that is particularly associated with Baptism). By dying with Christ we are released from our previous states of bondage.259
The place of Christ in relation to the powers is very important. Wright writes:—
All power structures, ancient or modern, whether political, economic or racial, have the potential to become rivals to Christ, beckoning his followers to submit themselves to them in order to find a fuller security. The invitation is as blasphemous as it is unnecessary. Christ brooks no rivals. His people need no-one but him.260
Justification and the Powers
The Pauline doctrine of justification by faith strikes against all attempts to demarcate membership in the people of God by anything other than faith in Jesus Christ; particularly, of course, it rules out any claim to status before God based on race, class or gender.261
By teaching the doctrine of justification by faith, Paul ruled out any place for the powers in our justification. To define covenant membership by anything other than allegiance to Christ is an idolatrous assault upon Christ’s authority.262 The gospel confronts the principalities and powers with the Lordship of Jesus Christ and tells them that their time is up. The Church is created by the message of the gospel; the doctrine of justification serves to continually remind the Church that it must live in a manner that is consistent with this message. Living consistently with this message necessitates a refusal to permit the powers (whatever form that they might take) to hijack the Church by offering a higher status to those who will submit to them. In the Church, Paul taught, the only status that really matters is the one received as a free gift by all of those who are ‘in Christ’.263 Any attempt to establish a claim on God’s grace is an attempt to subtly reintroduce the powers.
This is one of the reasons why the error of Peter at Antioch and the teaching of the Judaizers in Galatia posed such a serious threat to the heart of Paul’s gospel. After claiming that the common Protestant reading of Galatians ‘emasculates the letter’, Wright claims that, in Galatians, Paul
…is attacking the attempt to confine grace to one race. The all-important issue is: ‘Must I become a Jew in order to belong to the true people of God?’ And this reflects the deepest question of all: what does it mean to worship the true God? In Galatians 4.1-11 he shows that the true God — the God revealed as Father, Son and Spirit — has broken the rule of the ‘powers’. And he demonstrates that if the Galatians, or anyone else, allow the power structures of the world to remain intact, as they will do if they continue to uphold the Jew/Gentile division within the church, they are embracing a non-gospel. In such a message, there is no real good news: the cross has not won the victory over the powers. They still rule supreme.264
By claiming that Gentile converts to the Christian faith had to submit to circumcision and the Torah to truly enter into some supposed ‘inner circle’ of the people of God, the Judaizers were granting the Jewish Torah an enduring authority alongside the authority of Jesus Christ. As Paul recognized: ‘concede the Torah its permanent validity, and any Gentiles who come to believe in Jesus will have no reason to abandon their ethnic loyalties.’265 If Gentile Christians have to come under the Torah, the powers are in some sense still in charge and Christ isn’t really Lord of all. Jesus came to ‘break the stranglehold that the powers have on the world’;266 bring the Church back under the powers and you eviscerate the gospel.
In the context of his teaching about the defeat of the powers, Paul warns the Colossians against submitting to the regulations of the Jewish Torah.267 Once you are a member of Christ, you do not need to be ‘completed’ by any other system; you are already complete in Christ and nothing can go over Him to impose its authority upon you.268 Any attempt to domesticate the gospel — the declaration of the lordship of Jesus Christ — by bringing the Church under the dominion of the powers (whatever form they take) should be ruthlessly exposed and rejected. All other allegiances are relativized by allegiance to Christ, which sets all members of the Church on an equal footing, irrespective of any social, cultural, familial, ethnic or national status they might possess in the eyes of the world.
Wright is adamant on this point:—
Let there be no mistake. To proclaim the Lordship of Jesus in all the world can never be a matter of merely inviting people to embrace a personal salvation which leaves the power structures of the world untouched. If it is reduced to that, then in the name of the whole New Testament we must say that the Jesus of whom such a message speaks is not Jesus of Nazareth, but an idol who has usurped his name and distorted his message.269
Monotheism and the Powers
On a number of occasions Paul affirms monotheism as the basis of an attack upon the powers. Paul assumes that, if there really is one God — as the Jews affirmed — there must ultimately be one people of God. A ‘single united family’ of God is the corollary of monotheism.270 If justification were by the ‘works of the Torah’, God would become aligned with the various national deities of the other nations; He would merely be the God of the Jews, rather than the God of Jews and Gentiles alike.271 If there were a number of ‘peoples’, rather than ultimately just one people of God, ‘the whole theological scheme would lapse back into some sort of paganism, with each tribe or race possessing its own national deities.’272 If the people of God are not one worldwide people, then the powers have won — there are many gods rather than one God after all. The fact that God is one, however, as the Jews’ most basic confession declares, rules out any appeal to the Torah (conceived of as a ‘national badge’) as the basis of justification. Paul ‘uses the Shema to relativize the Torah which it summarizes.’273
The Torah was incapable of bringing about the one family that God promised to Abraham; it merely perpetuated the existence of the many families and left the many powers and authorities still in control. Consequently, the Torah merely had a temporary role and ‘cannot therefore be the final and permanent expression of the will of the One God.’274 The Torah acted as a guardian for Israel until God’s promises arrived at their fruition. The Torah cannot have the last word; it too has to bow to Jesus Christ.
In Jewish thought, Wisdom was seen to be ‘God’s agent in the creation and preservation of the world’ a power supreme over all the nations and their ‘gods’.275 The Jews were convinced that God had given them His Wisdom in the form of the Torah or in God’s personal presence in the Temple.276 However, the apostle Paul speaks of Jesus Christ as God’s true Wisdom; the divine Wisdom is identified with Him, rather than with the Torah.277 Rather than looking to the Torah for protection and victory over the principalities and powers, it is Christ to whom the people of God must look. That which Israel believed about herself and the Torah that was given to her has actually been accomplished in the Person of Jesus Christ. All things were created for Him; He is the agent of God in the world and the one who is supreme over all the powers.
Judaism and Paganism
Paul warns those who wish to be circumcised in Galatia that they are, in effect, returning to paganism, albeit in a far more subtle form. In Galatians 4:1-11 he argues that, by being circumcised, the Galatians will be returning to the realm where the principalities and powers hold sway, to the realm of slavery.278 To become a Christian was to escape from the dominion of the various enslaving powers or ‘gods’ and to find freedom in knowing the one true God. Now that the purpose for which the Torah had been given to Israel by God had been completed, to return to it once more would be an act of treason. It was pledging allegiance to the temporary steward even though the rightful King had returned. By treating it as if it were some form of independent power, the Judaizers were granting the Torah divine status and becoming just like the paganism they so vehemently tried to reject.279
From Paul’s Christian point of view, those Jews who do not embrace Jesus as their Messiah are thereby embracing instead an identity marked out by blood and soil, by ancestry and territory, in other words, by the “flesh”. They are therefore subject to the same critique as paganism.280
For Paul all that Judaism has to offer to the Christian is ‘just another local and, one might say, tribal religion, composed like any other of allegiances, rules and regulations which function at a purely worldly level.’281Summary
We have now observed the three key reasons for Paul’s opposition to the Judaizer’s use of the Torah. He opposed the use of the Torah as a charter of national privilege because it: (1) compromised his understanding of the impartiality of God and construed the Torah in a manner that would preclude the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham of one worldwide family; (2) failed to recognize the role of the Torah, most especially the fact that Torah highlighted sin and undercut any ethnic boast; and (3) emasculated the message of Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers by bringing people within the Church under their control. We have also observed the manner in which Paul both relativized and reaffirmed the Torah.
Within the next post I hope to explore Wright’s understanding of faith, particularly in its relationship to the εργα νομου.