The Death of Jesus – Why We Miss the Point

the_date_the_revolution_beganI finished reading NT Wright’s latest “The Day the Revolution Began” on Christmas day 2016, and have been ruminating on it since. It is indeed the paradigm challenging book that it was touted to be, although some of his arguments are familiar to fans who have read his other books. And though Michael Gorman helped exorcise my atonement theory demons last year, it seems Wright has put the final nail to the coffin. So I intend in this post to share some lessons I have learnt from these 2 theologians about how to read the Bible properly in order to understand Jesus’s behaviour and actions, including understanding perhaps the most important action of all – his death on the cross.

1Center The Discussion – Start from The Gospels

Just like Gorman, Wright challenges us to answer this all important question by not first looking to later commentaries about Jesus’s death, especially from Paul’s letters, but by starting from the the best record of Jesus’s own life themselves ie from the Gospels. And just like Gorman, he brings in the significance of Jesus choosing to die not on the day of atonement (Yom Kippur), but rather during Passover. Some of the results of doing this is already mentioned in my review of Gorman’s book, and in this respect he and Wright are aligned in their thinking so I will not repeat it here. Suffice it to say that they point out a very obvious problem that I have noticed in Christendom – we just don’t pay enough attention to the Gospels, and even when we do, we totally ignore the fact that the context for understanding the Gospels is 2nd Temple Judaism, not 21st century Christianity (or any other period of Christian history).

2“According to Scripture” – Know the Story of Israel

In 1 Cor 15:4, Paul makes a very important statement – “Christ died for our sins, ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURES”. Many Christians I have met and interacted with assume that Paul is talking about proof-texting ie finding 1 or 2 passages in the Old Testament that seem to foreshadow Jesus’ death. And in the case of answering why Jesus died, the go-to place has been Isaiah 53. But as Richard Hays points out in his book “Reading Backwards”, such attempts to look for individual passages or chapters in the OT to explain the NT without understanding the story of the people of Israel always leads to abuse of scripture. When Paul said “according to scripture”, he meant according to the whole witness of the Old Testament regarding the purpose of existence of the people of Israel, and not according to individual scriptural passages taken out of their historical context – which is the aforementioned story of Israel.

Let me give a clear example of how this bad attitude within Christianity towards the story of Israel has so distorted our understanding of scripture.

If you were to ask an ordinary Christian, or myriads of pastors, what Jesus meant by “forgiveness of sins” in his statement at Passover ie. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)”, you will get the classical answer which goes from Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden to how Jesus died to save us from the effects of this one particular sin. They will totally jump over the biblical story of Abraham, the Exodus, Israel as a nation as well as the exile and return from exile, as if none of that intervening bit recorded in the bible matters.

But when a Jew of Jesus’ day hears Jesus talk about “forgiveness of sins”, the “sins” that would have come to mind are not Adam’s sin which they inherited, but the sins of their forefathers which led them into exile, and even after returning from exile, into a state of slavery in their own nation. In an interesting set of coincidences (all Chapter 9), one can see which “sins” they mean by reading the prayers for Yahweh’s mercy on Israel recorded in Daniel 9, Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 – 3 different prayers from 3 different people offered during and after the exile. I quote from some of these passages below.

Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws … All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore, the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses … have been poured out on us … You have fulfilled the words spoken against us … by bring on us great disaster” (Dan 9:4-12, Daniel’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy during the exile).

I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens … Because of our sins, we and our kings and priests have been subjected to the sward and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hands of foreign kings, as it is today” (Ez 9:6-7, Ezra’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy after returning from the exile)

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had waned them in order to turn them back to you … So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them … But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so that they could eat it its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, it’s abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress” (Neh 9:26,27,36-37, A prayer of the people of Israel to Yahweh for mercy after returning from exile)

But one may then ask – if “forgiveness of sins” was about the sins of Israel leading to exile, then how can we, non-Jews who didn’t participate in the “sins” that lead to the exile, receive “forgiveness of sins” in Jesus’s death on the cross? Here we go to the 3rd lesson.

3Covenant is the Key – Repent of Your Legal Filters

For centuries, and especially within Protestant tradition, many have focused on using law-court metaphors to understand not just places where they seem to appear – like Paul’s letters, especially to the Romans – but to read all of scripture, including the Old Testament. This is despite the fact that ancient Israel was founded on Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh – a relationship that was entered into not on the basis of “law keeping” but on the basis of trust – Abraham’s trust in Yahweh. The giving of the law was meant to keep the covenant relationship that had already been enacted intact, and not the basis of foundation of the covenant. Yahweh actually specifies the reason why he calls Abraham right from the get go.

I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3).

The purpose of the relationship of Yahweh to Abraham was the salvation of the world. This is reiterated again to focus specifically on the nation Israel as the “inheriters” of Abraham’s task and promise.

I, the Lord have called you [Israel] in righteousness, I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you [Israel] to be a covenant for the people, and a light to the Gentiles” (Is 42:6)

Hence, when Abraham’s offspring missed the way, the means of salvation for the world had been missed. And since the exile was caused by the “sins” of idolatory and injustice, Yahweh needed to forgive these “sins” in order to restore covenant relationship. Hence the words of the prophets

The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah … for I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more” (Jer 31:31,34)

Note that Yahweh didn’t say “I will make a new covenant with everyone in the world”, but with Israel and Judah – the northern and southern parts of the divided nation which had both gone into exile.

Abraham (and subsequently, Israel) is God’s vehicle of salvation of the world, including Gentiles like you and I. Therefore, Jesus’s death is the means of restoration of the covenant so that you and I, 2000 years after, can also be beneficiaries by becoming part of the chosen people of God – becoming part of the new Israel constituted “in Christ”.

This is why Paul says

Christ redeemed us [Jews/Israel] from the curse of the law [exile] by becoming a curse for us; for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole’. He redeemed us [Jews/Israel] in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:13-14 NIV)

Reading the bible with legal-metaphor filters however prevents one from seeing why covenant is so crucial to the bible. To make sense of the bible in a legal manner, Protestants especially, following their favourite forefather St. Augustine, have had to resort to reading Adam and Eve as breakers of moral laws, which sin is transmitted via direct inheritance (aka Adam as the first man) in order to make everyone guilty so that Jesus can come to save us all. It has been interesting to me listening to friends and pastors who read scripture with this filter explain Paul’s references to Israel, Abraham, “law”, “sin”, “inheritance”, “promises” etc that appear all over his letters, all the while skipping over the details of Israel’s story and trying to universalize the guilt of everyone so scriptures which applied to Israel will somehow apply to us all.

4Recover Vocation – Re-Read Genesis and Revelations Again

And so we begin at the beginning. NT Wright makes a very important suggestion about reading the bible, not just in individual books but especially about the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelations). Reading the end of every story helps you to understand what the beginning and middle was all about. This is obvious advise, which is why the end of a movie or a novel explains all that happened before. And in that sense, he points out a very important but critically overlooked point in the book of Revelation. That there are 3 passages which point out the purpose of salvation, but which hardly feature in most people’s conversation about salvation.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (Rev 1:6)

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:6)

You will note that the idea of being made a kingdom of priests and a royal nation is exactly the reason why Yahweh chose Israel in Ex 19.

You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6).

Now, step back a bit, and ask yourself how God made human beings? He made them “in his image and likeness” (Gen 1:26). This would mean then that salvation is about that primary reason he created man – to set us free to become fully human, properly bearing the image of God. Humans were created with a vocation – to be priests and kings mediating God’s presence on the earth and reflecting his praises to him. The failure of Adam and Eve then is not simply about “law-keeping”, but about refusing to act as images of God through reliance on him as their source of wisdom, and deciding to be images of themselves, making themselves the ultimate source of wisdom. This is why “Wisdom” is such an important concept in the Old Testament – there was no true wisdom without “the fear of Yahweh” (Prov 9:10).

As Paul mentioned in Romans 1 when condemning non-believing Gentiles, whenever humans refuse to worship Yahweh and follow in his ways, they become less of themselves, falling to immoral behaviour. The solution then, is a restoration to covenant relationship, and learning from the Human One – Jesus the Messiah – what it means to worship Yahweh, and to be made in Yahweh’s image – which is fully revealed in Jesus.

Afterall, a certain apostle once wrote.

“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son” (Ro 8:29)

I have more to say about salvation as a recovery of the human vocation as “the image of God”, but let me finish reading J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1”, and i’ll give you my thoughts.

Suffice it to say that moving the conversation from “savings souls from hell to heaven” to “inviting people into a community where they can live life as genuine human beings both now and in eternity” is where we need to be headed. And I’m definitely on board with Wright, Gorman,Walton, Middleton et al.

The revolution against the powers of sin and death has begun in the death of the Messiah on the cross. Long live the revolution!!!

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Book Review: The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of The New Covenant

 

51-K0sC-AFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I interrupt my series “Healing the Divide” to bring you my thoughts on a book I just completed, as promised.

It is the Franciscan monk Father Richard Rohr who I heard say in an interview that “A lot of times, one sees only what one is told to see”. I came away from reading Michael J. Gorman’s 2014 publication “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement” with the same feeling. How did I not see this before! Well, I didn’t see it because I wasn’t trained to see it. It was indeed hidden in plain view.

I first heard of Michael J. Gorman when he interviewed NT Wright and Richard Hays together on the implications of Wright’s big book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”. In that conversation, they referred back to Gorman’s own writings on the cross, and I made a mental note to read him sometime. However, I’d been thinking of the subject of atonement for quite a long time, and someone recommended him. To that someone (David Fitch), I say “may your tribe increase”.

Previous Atonement Models

First, what do we mean by atonement, for the uninitiated? Atonement is a fancy word created from multiple words: “at-one-ment”. It describes how human beings become reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, there have been many ways (or models) of explaining how this “atonement” works – some of the models are Christus Victor, substitutionary atonement, moral example etc. And it seems each tradition of Christianity gravitates to one or the other, leading to disagreements.

However, Dr Gorman begins the book by making the following statement:

All models of the atonement are necessarily selective, because the New Testament writers did not set out to write a theology of atonement, and certain perspectives and themes emerge in particular writers and writings more than in others”.

He argues that the selective nature of these models of atonement lead to the following observations:

  1. Current models of atonement are isolationist. “Each one is constructed as a kind of stand-alone theory that supposedly tells the whole story and requires exclusion of other versions of the story” (Gorman, 2014).

  2. Drawing from the point above, current models are atomistic, not drawing from the richness of other models.

  3. The third problem is individualism. Most models of the atonement are focused “on the individual, rather than on both the individual AND the community”(Gorman, 2014, my emphasis).

  4. Each model under-achieves. On it’s own, each model does not do enough.

He proposes a different starting point for understanding why Jesus died – by looking at Jesus’s own words at the Last Supper in the context of Israel’s own story of covenant in both Torah and the Prophets. It seems that though other scholars may have hinted (in bits and pieces) in the same direction, he might be the first who has written in full detail what he calls a “new-covenant” model of atonement. It is here that he blows my mind. Because he points out that, this should have been obvious, but has somehow been screened out of our conversations about why Jesus died, or has not been read in light of Old Testament history and context.

The Absence of the Obvious

At the Last Supper, the evangelists Luke and Matthew record Jesus using specific words when he shares the wine as his blood.

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Lk 22:20 NIV)

Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)

Though Luke uses the word “new covenant” to describe the blood of Jesus, Matthew simply says “covenant”. But the implications are the same, if we look to Moses and the prophets.

After Moses had received the Law from Yahweh (Ex 19-23), he (Yahweh) instructed him to call the elders of the people together, read it out to them and perform a ceremony. In Exodus 24, Moses does as Yahweh instructed, reading the Law to these leaders and asking them to express their agreement to do as Yahweh has instructed, which they agreed to (“they all responded, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do’” – v 3). Moses then sacrifices young bulls on an alter made from “twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel”(v 4). He then took the blood of the bulls, sprinkled it on the people and said the magic words “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (v 8). Obviously, the blood was meant to seal the covenant between Yahweh and his nation Israel.

The observant reader will realize that these are more or less the same words that Jesus used at the Last Supper. But why does Luke say “new covenant” and why does Matthew say “for the forgiveness of sins of many”?

Here, Gorman points out that as the prophets had attributed the exile from the land to Israel’s sinful unfaithfulness to the covenant with Yahweh, the prophets again had promised that Yahweh will enact a new covenant with his people, a process which will involve him cleansing them of their former disobedience. This is best captured by the prophet Jeremiah.

The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer 31:31-34 NIV)

In a nutshell then, Jesus, echoing both Moses and the prophets, states that the goal of him shedding his own blood was to enact a new covenant between God and humanity. Gorman posits that

The forgiveness of sins is certainly important; it is an integral sign of the new exodus and new covenant. But forgiveness is only part of the larger purpose of God in the Messiah’s suffering and death; the larger purpose is to create a new people who will both be and bear universal witness to the new covenant”. (Gorman, 2014)

Gorman could have ended the book here, and I’d have been convinced, but he goes on further to clarify in what way this new covenant was different from the old one.

The Distinctives of the New Covenant

He draws out the ways in which this new covenant will be “new”, because that is precisely the word that prophets like Jeremiah used to describe it.

  1. This covenant is enacted in and through Jesus’s self-sacrificial actions on the cross. In effect, God himself, through Jesus, sheds his blood to seal this covenant.

  2. Drawing on the Eastern Orthodox theology of “theosis”, Gorman traces all over the Gospels, Paul’s letters and the book of Hebrew how the new-covenant people are not just called to be beneficiaries of this self-sacrificial action, but to participate in it as God’s means of redemption of the world, and as a means of taking on the divine nature. Hence Paul’s statements like I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” (Phil 3:10).

  3. In line with point 2 above, he draws on Phil 2:5-11, point out that Jesus’s willingness to be made nothing, “taking the very nature of a servant”, shows an attitude that this new-covenant people must adopt. Its an attitude not to “lord it over”, but to serve, even one’s enemies. Indeed this new-covenant people become a people of non-violent, non-coercive, self-sacrificial love.

  4. This new-covenant is also marked by a widening of the gates for non-Jews to be participants, unlike the previous covenant that was limited to Jews only. This is also part of the prophetic expectations being fulfilled.

  5. An additional dimension that he points out, which I’d never observed before, is the dimension of the new-covenant being both a means of peacemaking and showing to participants in this covenant, Jesus’s way of peace. He reminds us of Paul who, when speaking of God joining Jew and Gentile together in Eph 2, states that “For he himself [Jesus] is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14 NIV). Drawing again on the prophetic hopes for a future King, he points out that the goal of righteousness is peace. “See, a king will reign in righteousness, and rulers will rule in justice … the fruit of that righteousness will be peace” (Is 32:1,17 NIV). This peace is not simply an inner peace in one’s individual self, but a reconciliation between all hostilities in the world – what the Jews call “shalom” i.e. wholeness. Hence Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on The Mount – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9)

  6. Lastly, this new-covenant will be marked by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, to bind together the new multi-cultural, multi-ethnic new-covenant people of God in their ability to live self-sacrificially, non-coercively and non-violently at peace with each other, and at peace with a world in which violence still reigns, until the consummation of the kingdom yet to come. As he puts it, “Life in this new covenant is life in the Spirit of the resurrected Lord that is shaped by the faithful, loving, peacemaking (and therefore hope-making) death of the same crucified Jesus” (Gorman, 2014).

Step Aside, Former Atonement Theories

And so he wraps up by restating clearly his proposal for understanding the death of Jesus Christ.

The purpose of Jesus’s death was to effect, or give birth to, the new covenant, the covenant of peace; that is, to create a new-covenant community of Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus who would fulfill the inseparable covenantal requirements of faithfulness to God and love for others through participation in the death of Jesus, expressed in such practices as faithful witness and suffering (cruciform faith), hospitality to the weak, and servant-love for all (cruciform love) and peacemaking (cruciform hope).” (Gorman, 2014)

He goes on to the express how a new-covenant model of atonement makes sense of all the previous theories of why Jesus died, and yet overcomes all the deficiencies that one sees if one tries to hold only one of them up as the “correct” theory. In this effort then, Gorman has indeed established a way forward beyond the atonement wars, a way forward that was so obvious and yet has been missed for centuries. If taken seriously, it overcomes a lot of the earlier complaints he began with about holding one of the standard ones against the other – complaints of isolationism, individualism and underachievement.

Laying My Atonement Demons To Rest

Michael Gorman’s proposal enables me to finally lay my atonement demons to rest. One of the greatest problems I’ve had with some expressions of substitutionary atonement had been its over-reliance on legal language and it’s tendency towards individualism. A new-covenant model not only takes care of that (especially the latter), it actually places the church squarely where it should be – at the centre of understanding why Jesus died. Hear Gorman on that score:

The existence of Christian community, then, is not an addition to atonement theology, nor a way of superficially joining together myriads of individuals who each happen to have received the forgiveness of sins. Rather, Christian community is part of atonement theology’s very essence. There is no atonement without ecclesiology, and no ecclesiology without a comprehensive account of the atonement” (Gorman, 2014)

In light of this great book, Michael J. Gorman is now very welcome on my Amazon wishlist. I believe after my personal readings of Richard Hays (whose beloved book “Moral Vision of the New Testament” was referenced quite a bit by Gorman), his 3 part series on cruciformity should be next.

It’s not everyday that one finds a United Methodist who describes himself as an Anabaptist-Wesleyan, and yet expounds Eastern Orthodox theology whiles holding a chair in New Testament at a Roman Catholic Seminary, itself a rare feat. These are divisive days, and the church needs courageous theologians like Gorman, who are not willing to let themselves be confined to the boxes of their own traditions, but are willing to seek truth where it may be found. In this respect, Gorman is indeed a gem.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb Has Conqured, Let Us Follow Him

Healing the Divide I – Death and Sin

Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc

This is the first of a series of posts on some issues that I feel Christendom may be holding apart which needs to rather be held and taught through together.

So it began by reading 2 Old Testament scholars of our times – Peter Enns and John Walton. Then another OT scholar, John Goldingay further stirred the hornet’s nest with his cautions about reading too much legal language into Jesus’s death on the cross. This caused me to go back and read chapter 12 of NT Wright’s seminal “Jesus and the Victory of God”, where he places the Last Supper (Passover) as an important key in understanding Jesus’s aims of going to the cross. Intriguingly I found that the Methodist theologian Michael J. Gorman, who has written extensively on the cross of Jesus Christ, has done a highly commended work on atonement called “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement”, where he comes at it from the perspective of the Last Supper, raising the point that atonement theories have for too long focused on the mechanics, and not the overall goal of Jesus’ death and resurrection. So how did it end, you ask? Well, you’ll have to be a little patient with me, since I’m only on page 1 with Dr. Gorman. Do check back again in a few days when I’m finished with it and I’ll let you know what I think of it.

In the meantime though, the subject of atonement had been brewing in my mind for a few years now, and I’m already beginning to sense a way forward in the usually polarized debate between adherents of penal substitutionary atonement – the dominant model – and Christus Victor or ransom theories. And that way forward comes from a combination of thoughts from 2 sources – 1) Paul the ancient apostle and 2) a re-reading of the even more ancient story of Adam and Eve from an Ancient Near Eastern perspective, and all this with a bit of help from a particular song in George Frederik Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio. I dare say though that in articulating my thoughts, I’m going to be “slaying” a few sacred cows, but please bear with me till the end, after which you can carry it forward in your own thought processes to see if it works.

The Story of Our House

Twenty two years ago, we moved to our father’s newly built house in a newly developing peri-urban community called Agbogba. Today it’s a nice throbbing surburb in Accra, but back then it was like living in a thousand miles from nowhere. Being surrounded by thick bush and with virtually no neighbours, we faced a lot of attacks from reptiles – snakes and scorpions in particular. I remember we killed quite a few scorpions in our bathroom (God knows how they got there, or why they were so attracted to the bathroom in particular). Once though, a snake of all things actually entered our room in the evening, when we were not even connected to the national power grid and were surviving by the use of lanterns. Thanks to God that nobody in our family was ever bitten by any of these reptiles, as we spotted them early enough to kill them.

But imagine that someone had actually been bitten by one of these reptiles, especially by the snake that actually entered our living room. We’d have had to rush the person to the hospital, whiles some of us would probably also make the effort to search for and kill this snake – lest they strike again whiles comfortably hiding somewhere inside the house.

Paul’s Stinger.

With this story in mind, take a look at what Paul says in 1 Cor 15, quoting Hosea 13:14

“ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law”. (1 Cor 15:55-56).

So now you know which song in Handel’s “Messiah” is playing in the background – “Part III, Duet (Alto and Tenor) – O death, where is thy sting”. I wish I could embed it in this blog, but I digress.

Here, Paul pictures death as a reptile that has a sting – a sting called called “sin”. And the poison within that sting is called “the law”. Hmm, any parallels to my story of snakes and scorpions in our house 22 years ago?

Well, one I can clearly see is that if “death” who is the snake/scorpion/bee (or any other stinging animal that works for your imagination) in Paul’s allusion is not killed, he can still infect other people with “sin”, which works through “the law”. Death then, is the real enemy.

But doesn’t the same Paul rather say that “sin leads to death” e.g. “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23)? Isn’t sin the real enemy? Well yes and no. Think about it. The goal of sin is to bring us to it’s master – death. That’s why death is the payment or ultimate goal. Death is the snake that has infected the world with sin, and without defeating it but simply treating sin, death will simply reinfect us again.

So how is death, sin and law properly related? Why does Paul speak in such terms? Here comes the brilliance of reading the story of Adam and Eve not as modern people, but as an ancient document written to an ancient people, and here I’m grateful to John Walton’s “The Lost Gospel of Adam and Eve” for restating what I always thought was obvious but wasn’t so apparently.

Adam and Eve As Ancient People

Let me retell the story of Adam and Eve, particularly of what Christians call “The Fall”. As I’ve often said elsewhere, a large part of the reason why many misunderstand and misinterpret scripture is simply because they approach it from the wrong perspective. For any serious student of the bible then, learning the appropriate perspectives with which to read scripture is paramount, because contrary to the general Christian thinking, scripture can (and evidently has) yield multiple interpretations based on one’s approach to it. So let’s ignite our imagination with this retelling.

Fair warning: the following contains some shockers and might wreck your Christianity.

  1. God creates Adam and Eve, who are subject to death and sin and aren’t perfect.

  2. God desires that as representatives of the human race, Adam and Eve be able to overcome their mortality. Although he doesn’t tell them, he therefore provides a “Tree of Life”, which can give Adam and Eve victory over their mortality i.e. over death (hint … “but thanks be to God! He gives us the victory[over death] through our Lord Jesus Christ” – 1 Cor 15:57).

  3. God desires that they obtain all wisdom from him and not from themselves (hint – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – Ps 111:10).

  4. God warns them (i.e. he introduces “the law”) that eating of the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of God and Evil (i.e. wisdom independent of God) will lead to “death” – i.e. it will prevent them from gaining access to the Tree of Life. They were already mortals and subject to death, but disobeying God means they will not have “life” but rather remain in their susceptibility to death forever (hint – “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – Jn 10:10).

  5. The serpent deceives Eve that eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she will “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). This is a lie, because being a mortal with finite knowledge, there is no way they can know as much as God does enough to discern good and evil. But humans choose independence from God. They could have been sinful people all this while, but as Paul says, “sin is not reckoned without law”. Therefore they breaking “the law” not to eat of that fruit then leads to them being held accountable thenceforth for all their actions, having chosen independence from God.

Has your mind been blown yet, or do I need to try harder? Well, I’m still reeling even as I type. Suffice it to say that this scheme of reading Genesis 2 & 3 puts the focus squarely on who the real enemy has been all this time – mortality i.e. death, and Satan (who in the NT is associated with the serpent). It points out that humanity indeed needs a shot of anti-venom to save them from sin (forgiveness of sins), but to prevent the sting from being reinjected again, the stinger (death and Satan) need to be defeated. Doing the latter (defeating death) without the former means the poison hasn’t been removed. Doing the former without the latter means that even though the poison has been removed, there is room for another bite down the line.

One thing to note though. Knowing the story of Jesus and his statements in the Gospels, it is possible to read backwards (what Richard Hays calls “figural reading”, or Peter Enns calls a “Christotellic reading”) to see that the Tree of Life was actually Jesus, as he claimed he was the source of life in the Gospels. See the trick? But we leave that there.

Why Haven’t You Heard It Explained This Way Before?

So here are the further stingers that you didn’t know, especially if you are a Ghanaian reading this blog post.

As a Ghanaian, the Christianity you practice today is inherited from what historians call “Western Christianity”. In the year 1054, the church which was one united organisation split into the Eastern (Greek dominated) and Western (Roman/Latin dominated) churches. Therefore the historical term “Western Christianity” refers to all Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. And by default, Western Christianity reads Genesis and Paul according to how a very important saint in the church’s history interprets them – St Augustine of Hippo.

According to St. Augustine’s interpretation of Adam and Eve and Paul’s writings, Adam and Eve were sinless, perfect people, and all humanity inherits their sin through direct descent from them, with the addition that no human being is capable of doing any good as a result of this (what is called depravity). The term “original sin” is used to describe Adam & Eve’s sin and its effects, as expounded by St. Augustine. Some critical scholars think his interpretation is based on a particular (mis)reading of Rom 5:12, especially in the Latin translations of the bible during his times.

On the other hand, if you were born in Greece or Russia and were still a practicing Christian, you might probably have a different understanding of Genesis 2 & 3, because the Eastern church never accepted Augustine’s “original sin” and “depravity” premise. They hold to the notion that everyone is capable of good and evil, and accountable as such for their own actions, which cannot be blamed on Adam and on “human depravity”. However, as far as I know (and I stand to be corrected, being a mere mortal myself), they also hold that Adam was perfect and sinless at creation.

But what if you were a Jew? After all, the Old Testament wasn’t first written to Christians, but to the people of Israel. Well, Judaism is much closer to the Eastern church in this regard, and most Jewish Rabbis react almost “violently” to any suggestions about “original sin” and man being totally incapbable of good that pleases God. Sadly there’s very little commentary about Adam in the Old Testament, and one has to go into books from the 2nd Temple period of Jewish history (which are not within our bibles) to find extensive commentary on Adam. As a result, I believe John Walton’s retelling of Genesis 2 & 3 may be much closer to the Jewish understanding of Adam and Eve than most I’ve heard.

But at least they all agree that humanity as it stands today is sinful, and on that there is no debate.

One notable thing though, is that the Augustinian interpration of Adam and Eve is the main reason why Evangelical Christianity, being children of the Reformation and hence of Western Christianity, is chock full of resistance against any scientific explanations of human origins, because it requires Adam and Eve to be the first human beings so that sin could have been transmitted through them and all humanity can be considered depraved. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Healing The Divide: Atonement Theories

But all this leads me to the two dominant atonement theories, and here is where my thoughts now lead me to.

  1. We need an integration between Christus Victor, which emphasizes Christ’s victory over death and Satan, and penal substitutionary atonement, which emphasizes Christ’s death in our place to cleanse us from sin. Personally, my view of atonement as of today is in line with 1 Cor 15:55 – the stinger must be defeated alongside his sting, or else all the efforts are useless. Therefore in terms of logical flow, I place Christus Victor before penal substitution. This is mostly because it situates the discussion cosmically, before it does so on an individual level.

  2. Many people have pointed out flaws in both models (or in how people explain both models), and adherents of both must pay attention to the critique, and not declare each other as heretics. In my experience, Protestant Christians, especially those who are not very conversant with church history, have a knee-jerk reaction everytime any critique is raised of penal substituionary atonement, primarily because it first defines the problem just as Augustine posed it – that the greater need is saving us from our sins – a salvation which tends to be very individualistic in nature. A case in point: a British pastor Steve Chalke and Alan Mann wrote a book in which in just one chapter, they critiqued some portions of penal substitution. Not only were they ostracised, but one of those who endorsed their books – NT Wright, who is an adherent of both models of atonement – got maligned for supporting “heresy”. The question I asked then is whether we are letting our pet theologies lead us, supposing that our tradition alone has he corner on truth; or whether we are letting the whole witness of the bible tell us how to interpret and understand Jesus.

  3. There are more atonement theories beyond these 2 main ones, and the more we work to integrate the grand picture painted by the New Testament of the meaning of Jesus death and resurrection, the more fully fledged our Christianity will be, especially in practice, not just in theory.

    Conclusion

Now that I’ve got this off my chest, I’m going to return to Michael Gorman. As I mentioned on my facebook wall yesterday, I’m sticking to reading Old Testament theology and the theology of Richard B. Hays this year with the little reading time I have. However, I can almost guarantee that Michael Gorman’s Passover centered view of atonement will be a worthwhile diversion from my stated reading tasks.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb Has Conquered, Let Us Follow Him.