Thursday, August 14, 2008

Atonement as Evangelism???

We have it all wrong when we invite people to follow Jesus. The typical Evangelical invitation to Christ is, of course, summed up most fully in the so-called "Four Spiritual Laws." In short, they are (and partially in my own words):
  1. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life;
  2. Because you are sinful, you can't experience God's plan for your life;
  3. Jesus has the solution to your sin and is the only way you CAN experience God's plan for your life; and
  4. You must "receive" Jesus so that he can put God's plan in action for your life.

Now, at least numbers one and three have some basis in fact--I contend 2 is distorted and 4 is totally off-base--but the biggest problem here is not the accuracy or inaccuracy of the Four Laws as factual propositions, but that they have been represented and taught as the way one who has not previously believed in Jesus Christ comes to be his follower. I must hasten to add that, like all flawed human endeavor, God in his grace has frequently used the Four Laws in all their faulty inadequacy as a "foot in the door" to bring people to him, but this is a testimony to God's mercy, not to the efficacy or truth of the Four Laws or the underlying doctrine they promote.

The doctrine to which I refer, of course, is the concept that coming to Christ is primarily about dealing with this sin barrier between God and humanity. I've seen it expressed in other places that a holy God cannot abide or associate with sin, and only by having his Son die on the cross to atone for our sins, can God even look at us. In its most foolish form, people describe the imputation of Jesus' righteousness on us as almost some sort of adolescent trick where Jesus aids those who are "in" with him in some cosmic bait-and-switch on his Father, whereby the Father sees only his Son's righteousness and not the actual filth of his Son's buddies. I think that's an insult--God isn't that gullible or blind.

But there is a bigger issue here. Ancient religions, Judaism included, had a real issue with sin. Much, if not most religious practice involved appeasing the appropriate deity somehow--usually through sacrifice--in order to atone for some slight or anger or offense that the humans had caused. One didn't have to be Jewish to realize that God or gods were upset with human behavior and required payment.

Characteristically, Jesus came along and turned that whole concept on its head. He actually had the audacity to up and forgive people's sins unasked, as he did for the paralytic in Matt. 9:2-7. No sacrifice, for that matter no demonstration on the part of the forgiven man that he had either asked for forgiveness, or acknowledged his sinfulness. No, Jesus just flat-out forgave him, citing as his authority his ability to heal the man.

I think we miss the significance of Jesus' behavior in this situation when we get all wrapped up in doctrines of the "atonement." Atonement, or sacrifice to pay the debt of sin, is not an unknown concept in the old or new testaments, to be sure. Nor, as I said above, was it at all strange to the people of Jesus' time, even the pagans. But Jesus offered FORGIVENESS, not atonement. His authority to deal with sin was already established long before his trip to the cross.

Importantly, however, while Jesus definitely and repeatedly preached forgiveness of sin, it was not the core of his message the way it has become in Christianity. Jesus' own message was one of repentance and the simple call to "follow me." The key point of both of these things is that they involve an active change of lifestyle and direction, not simply of belief. Sure, you have to believe something pretty radical about Jesus if you're going to submit to his lordship, but it's that submission, not the belief, that is Jesus' call. Never in all the gospels or Acts do Jesus or his apostles invite people to acknowledge their sinfulness and "accept" Jesus. No, they are called to repent (turn around), be baptized, and follow. When "belief" is part of the equation, for example Paul & Silas preaching to the jailer in Acts 16:31, the phrase is "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." Given the common usage of "Lord" as the term for Caesar in those days, the jailer (himself a government functionary) could not possibly have confused this command with a proposition for intellectual or spiritual assent. He was being invited to change his ultimate allegiance--perhaps even to go AWOL.

Back to my main point. I am contending that, while Jesus certainly did and does forgive our sins, that fact is not the centrality of the gospel, that Christianity has made it. Even the many Pauline discourses on Jesus' atoning death, I have observed, occur in the context of Paul defending the gospel he preached to the Gentiles, against the legalism of the Judaizers--people who were trying to drag the Way of Jesus back into the old paradigm of rituals to atone for sin. When Paul speaks of Jesus' death atoning for our sins, he is trying (hopelessly, it sometimes appears) to demonstrate that the whole model of sin and sacrifice-atonement has been done away with by Jesus.

For us to turn around and make sin and its atonement a central element (at times it seems, the ONLY element) of our gospel is to preach a gospel fundamentally at odds with the one Jesus and the apostles preached. And we know what Paul said about that. . .see Galatians 1:8.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Required reading by N.T. Wright

I have just got to promote this article by N.T. (Tom) Wright, bishop of Durham in England:

Thanks to my friend Ben for sharing it. Wright has outlined so many things in this piece, that have also been bugging me, that I don't even know what highlights to quote. It's long and a bit heavy at times, but seriously, take the time to digest it.

I will offer a couple excerpts that, to me, resonate with some of what I've been trying to say here:

Consider: How does what we call ‘the authority of the Bible’ relate to the authority of God himself – and the authority of Jesus himself? When the risen Jesus commissions his followers for their worldwide mission, he does not say ‘all authority in heaven and earth is given to – the books you people are going to go and write.’ He says that all authority is given to him. When we say the closing words of the Lord’s prayer, we don’t say that the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to the Bible, but to God himself. And when Jesus commissions the disciples for mission in John 20, he doesn’t say ‘receive this book’ but ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Authority, then, has a trinitarian shape and content. If we want to say, as I certainly want to say in line with our entire Anglican tradition, that the Bible is in some sense our authority, the Bible itself insists that that sentence must be read as a shorthand way of saying something a bit more complicated, something that will enable us to get some critical distance on the traditional shouting-match.

And a little further down:

When we say ‘the authority of scripture’, then, we mean – if we know our business – God’s authority, Christ’s authority, somehow exercised through the Bible. But what is ‘God’s authority’ all about? To look again at scripture itself, it is clear that one of the most common models assumed by many in today’s world simply won’t do. We have lived for too long in the shadow of an older Deism in which God is imagined as a celestial C. E. O., sitting upstairs and handing down instructions from a great height. The Bible is then made to fit into the ontological and epistemological gap between God and ourselves; and, if it is the Deist God you are thinking of, that gap has a particular shape and implication. The Bible is then bound to become merely a source-book for true doctrines and right ethics. That is better than nothing, but it is always vulnerable to the charge, made frequently these days, that it is after all only an old book and that we’ve learnt a lot since then. The Left doesn’t get it, and often all the Right can do is to respond with an ever more shrill repetition of ‘the Bible, the Bible the Bible’.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Spiritual Innoculation

One of the things that originally got me on the subject of what the Bible actually says about itself was my frustration about how people in the church use it. . .and these are things I have encountered in a wide variety of Christian settings, not just evangelical/fundamental ones. I refer here to the devotional rituals described by some as "time with the Lord" or "quiet time" or "time in the Word." Whatever the terminology, conventional usage has invested a regular, periodic time of Bible reading with the power of a "Spiritual Discipline" that may be anything from a source of divine guidance to direct communion with God. Perhaps the worst, most insipid form of this practice is in the statement "the Bible is God's love letter to you."

I do not discount that familiarity with and study of the Biblical texts is essential to anyone who intends to model his or her life after Jesus--for as I said before, the Biblical record is the most complete account we have of Jesus' life and teachings. Nor do I disallow the possibility that the Holy Spirit may prompt vital thoughts or guidance in the believer while reading their Bible, though I believe the Spirit may just as well guide one's thoughts while one is reading non-Biblical literature (even the news). But the mystical properties often ascribed to the Bible are silly at best, and are certainly not supported by the texts themselves.

The most compelling argument against the mystical efficacy of Bible reading has got to be the ol' "by their works you shall know them" one Jesus used so effectively in his dissertation about false prophets in Matt 7:15-20. The "wolves in sheep's clothing" likely refers to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, as he used similar terms to describe these groups elsewhere. They were among the most scripturally-trained and studied individuals of the time, and perhaps any time. These were the guys of whom he said:

"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf." (John 5:39, NRSV)

Just as in Jesus' time, so also in ours, there is no correlation between people who regularly read their Bibles and discipleship behavior. Though there are certainly many people trying their level best to follow Jesus, many of the purveyors of the greatest hatred and vitriol in the name of Christianity today, are people who at least publicly subscribe to the regular-time-in-the-word discipline. I'll bet that George Bush reads his Bible regularly, and it didn't help him in the slightest to see past the perpetration of endless lies and the shedding of a great deal of innocent blood in the name of a "Christian" nation. Nor did it prevent him from blasphemously replacing Jesus with America when he misquoted John on 9/11/02 "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it" (last line of the speech--cf. John 1:5), or when he misquoted Isaiah while promoting his education program (note, this document is no longer on the White House website and I can't find another online archive - it was Bush speaking at the White House Education Summit in 2005 or 2006, I believe) "children living in darkness would see a great light" (cf. Isaiah 9:2). Not only Bush, but American Evangelicals, also supposedly regular readers of their Bibles, have failed to call him on repeated, blasphemous conflation of America with Jesus.

Of course I'm not blaming the Bible for the sins of its readers. I'm merely arguing that it's got no intrinsic power apart from (1) the working of the Holy Spirit in the mind of the reader, and (2) the openness of the reader to be worked upon. But it's worse than that. Misuse of the Bible--that is using it other than it was intended, can actually work at cross purposes to God. Here, finally is perhaps one of the greatest insults to God's word committed by the church.

My professional background is in public health, and for a number of years I worked in the field of immunization. As most readers will know, the process of immunization involves taking a bacterium or virus that causes disease, either weakening it or killing it, and then innoculating a person with a small, controlled quantity of that weakened (attenuated) or killed disease agent. When the body is exposed to the vaccine, the immune system generates antibodies which are then available to respond to the full-strength "wild type" agent if ever it is encountered.

This is such a parable for the way the Bible has been used on and by Christians. Our sermons, Sunday Schools, and devotionals extract bits of the Bible, strip them of any properties that might do any harm, and then repeatedly expose believers to this attenuated gospel until we've built up such an immunity that the real thing has no effect on us.

Like most analogies, this one breaks down if pushed too far, so I will refrain from expanding it further. However, we do need to carefully re-examine our use of the Bible, not only to discern the will and word of God within it, but to be sure that we are not perpetuating the process of innoculating ourselves or others against the genuine movement of God.