Archive for the ‘Cross’ Category

Quote of the Day: The Scandal of the Cross

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Thanks to Justin over at Loudon’s Leaf for pointing to a quote about the cross from Derek Tidball and, in turn, from Morna Hooker. Here it is in part:

Derek Tidball writes:

“The scandal of the cross continues. From Paul’s day to our own, [it] has never been anything other than a scandal, a cause of offence. People respond to its offensivness in different ways. Some ridicule it. Others try to ignore it. Chrstians, no less than others, have their techniques for reducing its shame. Long familiarity with it has lessened its absurdity and repugnance and led us to turn it into an item of beauty…. Morna Hooker comments: ‘Our problem is simply that we are too used to the Christian story; it is difficult for us to grasp the absurdity—indeed, the sheer madness—of the gospel about a crucified savior which was proclaimed by the first Christians in a world where the cross was the most barbaric form of punishment which men could devise.’ ” [Derek Tidball, The Message of the Cross (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 200.]

Crux probat omnia (The cross probes everything)

Monday, July 20th, 2009

The Latin verb probare means to test, examine, evaluate, probe, prove, approve. Luther wrote, “crux probat omnia,” usually translated “the cross tests everything” or “the cross puts everything to the test.” I like to use the cognate verb “probe,” as in “scrutinize.”

On this blog and elsewhere, especially over at Daniel Kirk’s Sibboleth, people have been wondering how the so-called violence of God in Judges and elsewhere, including Revelation, squares with the kenotic, cruciform, restorative love and justice of God revealed in Christ, especially in his cross.

At root, this is at least as much a hermeneutical issue as it is a theo-logical (doctrine of God) one. That is, what will determine our reading of such difficult texts? The answer, it seems to me, is crux probat omnia.

Though we have no right to dispense with certain parts of the canon, we do have the right (and the obligation, as Christians) to read such texts through, and in light of, the cross. The cross does not delete them, but the cross provides the lens through which we consider them, the framework within which we understand them. That is, if we believe in the incarnation and if we believe Paul’s claim that the cross is the definitive theophany, the self-revelation of divine love, wisdom,power, justice, etc. (1 Cor 1-2, etc.)

In reference to Revelation, this problem of problematic images seems particularly acute. But some interesting things happen, especially an ordering of the images. That is, not all apocalyptic images in Revelation are created equal. As Christian readers of this ( I believe) Christian text, we have to order our images Christianly or, better, align our ordering of them with the ordering of the book of Revelation itself. That is to say, images of God as liberator, warrior, judge, etc. have all been re-imaged and reconstituted by the coming, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The slaughtered Lamb is the central and centering image of the book, and through it we see God’s liberation, warfaring, and judgment quite differently, to put it mildly, than we would without it. Similar controlling images appear elsewhere in the NT.

In Revelation, this means that the conquering Jesus is a warrior who sheds his own blood, not that of others. He conquers with words, not literal swords. And his disciples are expected to follow suit on both counts.

Thus as Christians we affirm God as liberator, warrior, and judge, but only as those images are scrutinized by the cross. That is because we believe with Paul that the cross is in fact the ultimate theophany and, with the early church, that crux est mundi medicina: the cross is the medicine of the world—and of the church. Which is why the church’s mission and its cruciform existence—or its misguided belligerent crusading—always go hand in hand.

Paul and Violence?

Friday, July 17th, 2009

In my new book on Paul, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, I have a chapter arguing against the idea that Paul had a violent personality and for Paul as peacemaker and practitioner of nonviolence—which, I argue, is rooted in Paul’s gospel and especially in the resurrection.

A sympathetic and astute reader of the book, Brad, posed some very interesting and important questions.

One particular question keeps coming to mind and I was wondering if you would mind giving me your thoughts on it. You do a really nice job of showing in a succinct and compelling way how the kenotic view of God (and its non-violent implications) does not necessarily conflict with eschatological wrath/judgment, but I am left wondering what exactly Paul might have thought about the images of God as “Divine Warrior” in the OT, especially as this image is used for the sanctioning of nationalistic war (e.g. Joshua and Judges). How do you think Paul would have related these two images of God, kenotic and Warrior? A somewhat related point is that, while Paul does seem to leave the Phinehas understanding of zeal aside in favor of the model of Abraham, Genesis seems to think that a climactic expression of Abraham’s faith was in his willingness to sacrifice his own son (the “Akedah”). Paul apparently is comfortable appropriating the Akedah as a prototype of Christ’s obedience, but how do you think he would have thought about this act of violence as an expression of faith?

[More specifically,] I’m wondering is what Paul would have thought when, so to speak, he picked up Judges and read it: given its Scriptural status I don’t think Paul would have thought that God as Warrior who authorized and even demanded nationalistic military engagement was “not the same” as the God of Jesus Christ (as, e.g. Marcion) or that God had previously acted contrary to his character. So the question I’m thinking through is how would Paul have put together his view of God as fundamentally kenotic with the prior revelations of God as a (nationalistic, militaristic) Warrior who leads his people in battle. Or to put it another way, if God now approaches his enemies in restorative love, it seems that Paul also would have been compelled to acknowledge that in previous times and perhaps also in the future at the eschaton, God had acted on the principle of retributive justice (so sapiential literature, the Deuteronomistic History, etc.) and through the mode of military conquest.

Some of my response to these questions follows:

1. It is clear that Paul (and perhaps also the Pauline tradition, if Ephesians is not by Paul) can occasionally use various forms of military language and images for both God’s and (especially) believers’ life and activity. This language comes from the Scriptures, other Jewish literature, and Roman military life, etc. (Nijay Gupta, finishing a PhD in NT at Durham University in England and now teaching at Ashland Seminary is beginning a study of the last of these three, and that should be interesting.) This Pauline language is fully denationalized and is “theologized,” specifically “apocalypticized”: it is used to describe the conflict between God and/or believers on the one hand, and evil powers, Satan, false gospels and ideologies, etc., on the other. In some sense, believers participate in the divine apocalyptic battle, as in other Jewish literature. But this battle is in no sense actual military combat or physical violence. Nor is this battle a form of “soft violence,” that is, non-lethal coercion. The battle is waged with such weapons as proclamation, prayer, persuastion, and suffering. The use of military imagery may be a bit off-putting to us who are sensitive to its abuse, but it in no way justifies the use of violence. In fact, God is the kenotic warrior! God’s means of initiating and waging the apocayptic battle is to send into the world weapons of righteousness that embody the divine character: the Son, the Spirit, the church.

2. Paul’s rejection of violence is firmly rooted in his gospel, so the question of the Akedah/Abraham’s sacrifice, to which Paul alludes in Romans 8, is also significant. The key to this problem is how Paul views Christ’s death (itself a form of violence, with or without the analogy to the Akedah). For Paul, Christ’s death is both the donation of the Son by the Father and the donation of the Son by the Son himself—a self-donation. It expresses both the love of the Father and the love of the Son. Because of this close and inseparable connection between Father and Son, the Father’s giving of the Son is ultimately an act of self-giving. The Father gives the Beloved, Son, the One who shares in the very divine status of God. Although, of course, Paul does not state this interaction in specifically Trinitarian terms, he does indicate the deep self-involvement of the Father in the giving of the Son by the use of the reflexive pronoun iin Rom 8:3 and the parallel adjective idiou in Rom 8:32—God’s own son. To put it in theological language that Miroslav Volf and others have used, Paul sees the atonement fundamentally as a two-party “transaction,” not a “three-party” transaction. That is, God in/through Christ (one party) lovingly reconciles the world (second party) through Christ’s incarnation and death, rather than God (one party) sending and punishing Christ (second party) in Christ’s death so that the world/believers (third party) do not have to die.

3. I struggle theologically with the freedom of God/constrained by his own character of love. But I am very leary of the hint of divine change (e.g. from OT to NT) or the perception of divine change (e.g. “progressive revelation”). Paul would absolutely say that the “God of the OT” is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is not Marcion. So, how might Paul read those bloody narratives? I think he would read them, and did read them (as seen in his “apocalypticizing” or “spiritualizing” [I hate that term] of the divine warrior tradition), allegorically, as did Origen, though Origen did so with a different allegorical strategy. I am not trying to say that Paul and Origen were thoroughgoing hermeneutical brothers, only that violence drew them both to some form of allegorical interpretation.

4. On the practical side, it seems to me that Rom 13:1-7 does not sanction believers’ participation in anything that contradicts the explicit exhortations in the context (all of Rom 12 and 13). That passage is a very Jewish nod to established authority, but the sword it approves is not the sword of the soldier. My point is primarily that, given all the interpretations of Rom 13 out there, no interpretation can be valid that allows Christians to violate the explicit command, for instance, to love enemies. So even if one concludes that 13:1-7 says God installs governments to carry out violence when necessary, Rom 12 and Rom 13:8ff prohibit believers from doing so. Which means either one goes the path of Luther (bifurcating the individual into two roles) or one becomes Anabaptist theologically if not ecclesially). Facing this heremeneutical and existential dilemma, I choose the latter, or perhaps it chooses me.

The Nonviolent Missio Dei (again)

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

The discussion in the comments to the previous post is incredibly important, so I recommend them to all. Daniel Kirk has this to offer:

I really like the cosmic vision of Christus Victor, but if we miss that the victory part is attained by self-giving-love (so that others might live), it becomes a total disaster (cf. church history. :-) ).

One thing I say there is this:

The right question [regarding the appropriateness of Christian violence] might be, “Does the practice of violence cohere with or contradict the NT’s interpretation of what God has done in Christ—including his incarnation, teachings, death, resurrection, and exaltation as divine self-disclosure?”

The Nonviolent Missio Dei

Friday, June 26th, 2009

A number of people, not least John Howard Yoder and Richard Hays, have made the case that the NT does not give support to Christian participation in violence but, rather, leads us to practice nonviolence. Glen Stassen and others argue rightly that hearing the NT as a call to nonviolence alone is insufficient, and that we must also practice just peacemaking.

I am not disputing either of these claims and would in fact support them. Without going back and looking at each of their writings in detail, I would also add that each also says, implicitly or explicitly, that the mission or story of God is in fact a mission/story of nonviolent action centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If we think, then, of participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—that is, of participating in the story and mission of God—as the goal of human existence and the meaning of salvation, then nonviolence is not a matter to discuss or debate as one of so many possible topics in Christian ethics. Rather, it is at the very heart of what it means to be Christian, to be saved, to be a disciple.

Over at Getting Free, T has a brief but excellent post about this very topic: “The Cross and the Plot-line of our Time.” He says:

If this is a Story that we’re in, then the plot of how good beats evil in this world must be central to it. From what I can tell from the New Testament, generous love for people who are (currently) agents of evil (even to the point of giving one’s blood or money in love) is the central strategy of God in this plot line.

If T is right, and I think he is “spot on,” then the way Tom Wright and others tell the story of God in five acts (creation through recreation/redemption) needs to be more carefully articulated with an emphasis on God’s nonviolent, nonretaliatiory enemy love that is the central act of the story.

I wonder if Rev. Pagano and friends (see previous post) have thought about this? What’s the story of God they believe in and tell week in and week out?

T (and I) welcome responses there or here.

Should Protestants start making the Sign of the Cross?

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

At a unique day-long conference in February that was co-sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Birmingham (AL) and (Baptist) Samford University’s Center for Pastoral Excellence, I gave one of my several talks that day on Paul and the spirituality of the cross. I specifically spoke about the cross as not only the source but also the shape of our salvation.

In the Q&A someone asked for suggestions on concrete ways to remember and practice that point. I noted that although it can be trivialized and abused, making the sign of the cross–slowly and reverently–is certainly one way some Christians do that. At that point, I raised the question, “What would happen if all of us Protestants joined Catholics, the Orthodox, and some fellow Protestants (Lutherans, Episcopalians [to the extent they are Protestants]) in making the sign of the cross?”

Two things happened very quickly. First, since it was time for lunch, the Baptist director of the Center invited us all to make the sign of the cross as he led us in grace before the meal! Second, the reporter from the Birmingham newspaper cornered me at the end of the day (looking for an angle other than “nice ecumenical event for the year of St. Paul”) to get me to elaborate a bit. He then made this one point I raised the focus of his article–which caused a bit of a stir in Birmingham, if the paper’s blog is any indication. (Typical post: “show me where it’s in the Bible, and I’ll do it” [like sitting on pew cushions, having altar calls, holding vacation Bible school, and celebrating Christmas in December, I suppose].) Part of the article is here for free access:

http://www.al.com/birminghamnews/stories/index.ssf?/base/news/1233998106164210.xml&coll=2

(The full text is here:

http://chnetwork.org/forums/forum31/5728.html;

other sites may also have copied it in full.)

So now I raise this question for a wider audience. As I said to the reporter, “It’s time for us Protestants to get over our anti-Catholic bias and return to the ancient practice to focus better on the source and shape of our salvation” (or something like that).

What do you think? Do you agree? If not, why not? If so, how do we go about implementing it?

The Spirituality of Revelation

Monday, April 20th, 2009

This will likely be my last post for a while on Revelation, but it is an important one, from my perspective. If we read Revelation as a theopoetic and theopolitical writing focused on the reign of God and of the slaughtered Lamb, rather than as a script about the end of history (see previous posts), what kind of spirituality emerges from that reading? I suggest the following:

1.     Worship

2.     Realism

3.     Faithfulness and Prophetic Resistance

4.     Discernment and Vision

5.      Courageous Nonviolent Warfare

6.      Embodied Communal Witness and Mission

7.     Hope

 

  1.  A spirituality of worship. Revelation summons us to worship God the creator and redeemer, the Alpha and Omega, who reigns! It summons us to worship Jesus the redeemer, the slaughtered Lamb, the Alpha and Omega, who is Lord! The reign of God is not merely future or past but present. The summons to worship is therefore inseparable from allegiance. God in Christ both demands all and offers all
  2. A spirituality of realism. Revelation summons us to live cognizant of the realities of evil and empire. Evil is real. Empire is now—not merely future or past but present. Empire, by nature, makes seductive blasphemous and immoral claims and engages in corollary practices that bring disorder to both vertical (people-God) and horizontal (people-people) human relations, promising life but delivering death—both physical and spiritual.
  3.  A spirituality of faithfulness and prophetic resistance. The Christian church is easily seduced by Empire’s idolatry and immorality because these claims and practices are often invested with religious meaning and authority. In the context of “civil religion,” the church is called to “come out.” In the midst of Empire, the church is called to resistance in word and deed as the inevitable corollary of faithfulness to God, a call that requires prophetic spiritual discernment provided by God’s Spirit, and a vocation that may result in various kinds of suffering.
  4.  A spirituality of discernment and vision. The spiritual discernment required of the church, in turn, requires an alternative vision of God and of reality that unveils and challenges Empire, a vision in need of the Spirit’s wisdom to see and apply. This takes us back to the need for worship.
  5.  A spirituality of courageous nonviolent warfare. The resistance required of Christians can be likened to warfare in search of victory. But because this victory is only the victory of the victorious slaughtered lamb, Christian resistance to Empire conforms to the pattern of Jesus Christ and of his apostles and saints: faithful, true, courageous, just, and nonviolent.
  6.  A spirituality of embodied communal witness and mission. Christian resistance, like warfare, is not passive but active. It consists of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone; live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike; leave vengeance to God but bear witness to God’s coming judgment and salvation; create, by God’s Spirit, mini-cultures of life as alternatives to Empire’s culture of death; and invite all who desire life with God to repent and worship God and the Lamb. The will of God is for all to follow the Lamb and participate in the present and coming life of God-with-us forever.
  7.  A spirituality of hope. God the creator and Christ the redeemer take evil and injustice seriously and are about both to judge humanity and to renew the cosmos. We hope and long for the healing of the nations

The last word would simply be Follow. Follow the Lamb. Follow him out of empire but also, paradoxically, into empire: into the dark corners of empire, into those places where the vision of God and the Lamb is most needed, where death needs to be replaced with life, where we can bear witness in word and life to the coming new creation, where there will be life-giving water for all, healing for the nations, a new heavens and new earth liberated from the effects of our sin, and the perpetual presence of the living God, in whom we can be both lost and found in eternal wonder, awe, and praise. Giving flesh to such a vision is no small challenge.

 

Perhaps it would not be too bold to suggest that if we are to be a faithful church in the 21st century, the book of Revelation, and especially its vision of the slaughtered, victorious, and coming Lamb, needs to become more central to our worship, our spirituality, our practices. Perhaps, in a profound way, the last book of the Bible needs to become the church’s first book.

 

 

A Cruciform Hermeneutic for reading Revelation

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

My previous post was critical of the “Left Behind” series–certainly not new news, but worth repeating, I think. But after deconstruction there must be reconstruction. So here is what I would offer as an alternative set of principles–a cruciform hermeneutic–for reading Revelation.

  1. Recognize that the central and centering image of Revelation is the lamb that was slaughtered. In Revelation, Christ dies for our sins, but he dies also, even primarily, as the incarnation and paradigm of faithfulness to God in the face of anti-God powers. Christ is lord, Christ is victorious, Christ conquers by cruciform faithful resistance: not by inflicting but by absorbing violence; by speaking his powerful word, not by actually killing. Revelation is counter-imperial, challenging Rome’s theology of Victory and Power with what many have called “Lamb power” (among others, Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation,103-22, three great chapters). We are victorious by following the Lamb, not Babylon/Rome/analogous imperial powers. 
  2. Remember that Revelation was first of all written by a first-century Christian for first-century Christians using first-century literary devices and images. These images reflect certain first-century realities; they do not predict 21st-century realities. However, like other powerful images, these images in Revelation naturally evoke connections to similar realities at other times, including our own—which leads to the next principle.
  3. Abandon so-called literal, linear approaches to the book as if it were history written in advance, and use an interpretive strategy of analogy rather than correlation. Revelation is image, metaphor, poetry (Eugene Peterson: “a theological poem”), political cartooning. Revelation imaginatively reveals the nature of any and all systems that oppose the ways of God in the world, especially as revealed in Christ the lamb who was slaughtered. Those systems are not limited to particular future powers but are found in all places and times. We should therefore be examining our ideologies and -isms for manifestations of idolatry and immorality as expressed in imperialism, militarism, and  nationalism (the worship of the state and its power), racism and classism (the worship of the corporate self and the degradation of the corporate other), consumerism and hedonism (the worship of things and pleasure). This means we must especially look at our own Western and American and even Christian systems and values, not at some future one-world government, for evidences of that which is antichrist.
  4. Focus on the book’s call to discipleship. Revelation calls Christians to a difficult discipleship of discernment—a nonconformist cruciform faithfulness—that may lead to marginalization or even persecution now, but which leads ultimately to a place in God’s new heaven and new earth. Revelation calls believers to nonretaliation and nonviolence and not to a literal war of any sort, present or future. By its very nature as resistance, faithful nonconformity is not absolute withdrawal but rather critical engagement on very different terms from those of the status quo.
  5. Place the images of death and destruction in Revelation within the larger framework of hope. The death and destruction in Revelation are symbolic of the judgment and cleansing of God that is necessary for the realization of the hope offered in Christ for a new heaven and new earth in which God and the Lamb alone reign forever among a redeemed, reconciled humanity from all tribes, peoples, and nations. The church bears witness in word and deed to this future reality, but it knows that only God can bring that final, future reality to earth, so it constantly prays, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

My New Book is Out

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

Just in time for Holy Week and Easter, my new book is out, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009). It can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Inhabiting-Cruciform-God-Justification-Soteriology/dp/0802862659/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239573401&sr=1-1 and here: http://www.eerdmans.com/shop/product.asp?p_key=9780802862655.

Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul's Narrative Soteriology

Christmas is not Jesus’ Birthday

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

A growing number of churches have begun the practice of using Christmas as a time to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. They do this by singing Happy Birthday to Jesus (even in worship services) and having birthday parties for Jesus. Trouble is, Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday. It is the celebration of the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity; it is the celebration of the birth of the Son of God. But it is not Jesus’ birthday.

I think I grasp the motive behind this trend: including children in Christmas and making Jesus seem like one of us/them (children). But even from this perspective, is there any child who is not already spellbound by the Christmas story told in Scripture, with its array of interesting characters, its tension and intrigue, its sheer beauty?

The theological and spiritual dangers of trivializing and sentimentalizing the incarnation—and Jesus—are far greater than any supposed benefits of further including children and making them feel part of the celebration.

Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus would not seem to engender devotion to the One we are called to follow so fully that it might lead to death—yet the Church remembers Stephen, the first martyr, on December 26, the day after Christmas. Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus reflects an understanding of Jesus as a cute little baby or little boy who could cause no trouble and do no harm. But that is not what Herod thought, so the Church remembers his slaughter of the innocents on December 28. In other words, the shadow of the cross is present in the Scriptural Christmas narrative, and in the Church’s way of framing its celebration, but it is absent from the “Happy Birthday, Jesus” mindset.

We do not need any more Christmas customs that further divorce Christmas from discipleship. Let’s get rid of this theological error before it does more spiritual harm.


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