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.

Advertisements

The Politics of Jesus and His Church – Part 1

I have been accused of hardly bothering about Ghanaian politics (just kidding. It wasn’t an accusation but just innocent questions from some friends). They observe that I seem to share and write a lot on the church, Jesus and Christianity in general, and only sparingly on Ghanaian politics. I want to explain why, but I’ll do that in the next post. That explanation however is dependent on making sure my readers understand where I’m coming from theologically, and one such theological angle is what I want to address here. And this is the summary of what I’m abut to say – that I believe that for centuries, many Christians have missed a vital clue to understanding Jesus and his kingdom, and as a result do not see when they are letting their nationality win over their faith (by the way the word nationality here can be replaced by many others like political ideology, political party, tribe, language, race, social status, economic status etc. They suffer the same fate). What results is what Peter Enns calls “The Messiah Complex”. I’ll use a particular discussion we had at our house church lately to illustrate the point.

Who Do People Say I Am?

Recently we wrote a song from Psalm 2, and in the process our thoughts went to Matth 16:13-17. Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (v 13), and among many answers, Peter responded that Jesus is “The Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v 16). Jesus blesses Peter, and says he could only have known that through revelation by Yahweh himself. Now in other bibles, the word “Christ” is used instead of “Messiah” in v 16, but I’m glad for the choice of words of the NIV 2012. Christ is the Greek form of Messiah, which both mean “The Anointed One”. At the time of Jesus however, the dominant language in Galilee and Judea was Aramaic and some Hebrew, but not Greek. Therefore logically the word used there would not have been the Greek version. But I digress.

I have heard many sermons on this, including one a few months ago from a friend, including sadly from some Christian apologists. Time and time again, most people simply assume that Jesus was commending Peter for realizing that he was divine – aka he was the second person of the Trinity or “God the Son”, when that could not have been what he meant. I have written elsewhere on why the NT usage of “Son of God” originally did not mean Jesus was divine, so I will not go into details here. Note that I do believe that Jesus is divine, but I also realize that this continuous association of “Son of God” with the divine Jesus displays a wider problem within Christendom – for too long many Christians haven’t taken the political implications of calling Jesus “Lord” and “King” seriously. Many Christians have divinized and spiritualized away everything about Jesus, and therefore have left their political passions to be dictated by our worldly leaders today. The early church fought against the heresy of docetism – the belief that Jesus was either not really human or that his divine nature superseded his human nature – and yet somehow many have come full circle when they focus on only the divine Jesus and ignore (albeit giving it some lip service), the human king – the Messiah. As the learned NT Wright puts it

It is only recently that it has been widely acknowledged, for instance, that the phrase “son of God” in many New Testament writings does not automatically mean “the second person of the Trinity”, but is a title which, to a first-century Jew, would have carried messianic rather than “divine” overtones” – NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God.

Fundamentalism normally jumps from the word “Christ” not to first-century meanings of “Messiah” but to the divinity of Jesus, which the New Testament establishes on quite other grounds”- NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God.

So even though every bible translation has it’s own foibles, I’ll say kudos to the scholars behind the 2012 NIV for such a translation choice. But the question is what does it matter if son of God has “messianic rather than divine overtones”? How does that affect us politically?

A Messiah is a Political Animal

My father introduced me to Handel’s Messiah when I was young, but my love for it has grown in leaps and bounds in recent times, more due to the scriptural groundings of the songs than simply their melodic value. I’m sure my wife must be getting tired of hearing Handel’s Messiah playing in the car repeatedly. Well, too bad for her.

I’m enthralled by how Charles Jennens came up with the words and George Frederic Handel put them to music to create such a wonderful oratorio to tell the story of the kingship of Jesus so beautifully. Listening to “Why do the nations” led me back to Ps 2.

Reflecting on it again, I notice many things.

  1. It speaks of “The Lord” aka Yahweh and “His Anointed” aka Messiah. Two distinct people – one empowering the other.

  2. Both Yahweh and his Messiah speak. Yahweh declares his unfettered support for the king he has installed in Zion. (v 4-6)

  3. The Messiah recounts Yahweh adopting him as his son (v 7)

  4. He mentions Yahweh having given him the nations as his inheritance and power and dominion over all the kings (v 8-11). That reminds me of a certain Jewish Messiah who told his disciples “All power and authority has been given to me, therefore …” blah blah blah. Hmm…

  5. Everyone is required to submit to him (“Kiss his son, or he will be angry”), and those who seek refuge in him will be blessed (v 12). Apparently that Jewish Messiah told his disciples to make more people like themselves who will “obey” him. Hmm…

Short, but poignant psalm. This Psalm is the clearest indication that calling Jesus Messiah is not equal to calling him God, again not because Jesus is not God, but because that’s not what Messiah or Christ meant.

But if all power has been given to this Messiah, what is he supposed to do with this power? Care only about our spiritual destiny by carrying us all off to heaven and leave this world behind, or do what an earthly king is supposed to do – administer the world rightly? Let’s look at a Messiah’s raison d’etre – his goal, his manifesto from another psalm.

In Ps 72, the Psalmist prays that God strengthen his royal son so he may achieve his tasks – his tasks of maintaining justice and speaking on behalf of the disadvantaged, including the poor, fatherless and afflicted, of rewarding righteous behaviour and punishing wrong. These are the same things that one will expect of any political world leader, not so? Interestingly v 17 links the task of the Messiah to the call of Abraham, showing that it is in him that God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants will be fulfilled. Obviously here we see a Messiah who must be involved in the earthly issues of how to put food on the table, how to work against inequity, greed, abuse and violence. This is a very earthy Messiah. This is a very political one.

And how does this the Jewish Messiah from Nazareth achieve his manifesto? By calling unto himself a people who are washed and cleansed and set apart for him, and giving them the task to show the world what his kingdom is like – to be with the lost, the poor, the outcast, the oppressed and to make them know and experience the difference between his kingdom and he kingdoms of this world. This people he calls his “church” – the elect (1 Pe 1:1; 2:9). This is not surprising, because Yahweh did the same – calling a nation called Israel to be the light to the nations and calling them his elect (Ex 19:5-6). And in both ways it’s the same – the people are called not just to tell the world what to do, but to show the world through living it out.

And yet, walk the streets of Accra, in a country with about 70% Christian population, and ask people if Jesus was a political figure, or cared about politics in any way, shape or form, and the answer you will get 90% of the time is NO. Instead you will receive the standard answer – Jesus came to die for our sins, and he said “his kingdom is not of this world”, so his only usefulness is to the spiritual salvation of man.

You can see why in Ghanaian Christendom circles then, Jesus’ beatitude “Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit” is interpreted as blessings on those who know the depravity of their sin. As Christopher J.H. Wright puts it, it seems that somehow between the pages of Malachi (OT) and Matthew (NT), Yahweh who was so particular in his injunctions on how to care for the poor, oppressed, fatherless and widow in the OT, has totally forgotten that these people exist in the NT, and now only cares about the destiny of their souls.

How Did We Get Here?

The early church however, was very intentional in upholding and working to actualize Jesus’s kingship over the world in their times, not just in a future disembodied reality. They took his injunctions like the sermon on the mount and other such places quite seriously, whiles also acknowledging that he was more than just a king, but was also in some way equal to God. It is primarily this stance – that there is no king but Jesus – which caused them so much suffering and death at the hands of the brutal Roman empire. If it was a simple question of going to heaven, why would that ruffle the political figures?

And although there were temptations to budge (and some Christians did give in to some of these temptations), the floodgates burst open when a certain Emperor Constantine decided to adopt Christianity as his religion and force it on everybody else in the 4th century. Suddenly there was very little suffering for listening to Jesus instead of Caesar. The leaders of the church, to keep from critiquing the usually greedy, violent and abusive behaviour of the Emperors and their governments (to different degrees, traits of every human government this day), adopted one of the most easily abused methods of reading the bible – allegorical readings aka finding spiritual symbolism even in plain, simple commands.

This meant that clear statements of Jesus regarding how his church must carry forward his vision of a kingdom NOW in waiting for a kingdom FUTURE, were allegorized away into spiritual meanings of how Jesus would reign in the future whiles the political powers could do what they wanted in the present. The church relaxed both in its loyalty to Jesus and in living out his example by itself, and became consultant to the state on morality. The Gospels were robbed of their power, and over the years have been treated as toothless documents whose purpose is to serve as a mine for moral platitudes, children’s stories, guidance on how to go to heaven and in modern times, motivational statements. Allegorization and Greco-Roman philosophy led the church to depart from the Old Testament vision of a new heaven and a new earth reiterated in the New Testament, to a focus on heaven and hell. And the effects of giving our political allegiance to worldly kings whiles we concentrate on worshiping the divine Jesus are obvious through the tracks of history.

  • In loyalty to political, social and economic interests, Christians have engaged in 400 years of slavery, justifying it by appealing to the bible, ignoring king Jesus’s manifesto on justice and respect for fellow human. Even the slavery of the Old Testament could in no way be compared to this one. American Christians had a full-scale civil war between the north and the south over the right to keep slaves. Not only was the country divided, even Christian denominations were divided because of support for or against slavery. Ironically all this happened while there was a “Great Awakening” even amongst soldiers on the battlefield, believing they have received “salvation” and a ticket to heaven when they die.

  • In loyalty to their political leaders, Christians have participated in war and violence against their fellow being, including burning millions of Jews in the holocaust, in spite of king Jesus’s commands to love our enemies.

  • In loyalty to their nations, Christians have participated in abusive exploitation and colonization of countries to further the egos of worldly Emperors and kings, and have left continents like Africa divided and confused about their identities.

  • In loyalty to tribe, religious and ethnic identity, Christians are busy today hacking their fellow Moslem brothers up in the Central African Republic, ignoring the king who would rather die for his enemy.

  • The last straw has been loyalty to self. The influence of revivalism, with a message of “salvation” focused on one’s individual self without any clear sense of community, has spawned the prosperity Gospel, and today is wrecking havoc on already poor African Christians to the enrichment of a few “men of God”. Instead of the church community becoming the people we lay down our lives for (Mark 10:29-30), our personal goals and ambitions is now king.

History has shown it to be more than obvious – nature hates a vacuum. Whenever Christians have devoted themselves to an apolitical Jesus, they get quickly co-opted by the agenda of the powers – be they tribal, political, cultural, socio-economic or personal. Additionally, whenever Christians assume that Jesus’s political methods are like those of this world, there’s compromise and self-deception. This lopsided vision of Jesus only as “God the Son” is the vision that continues to drive much of African Christianity. The missionaries, with all their good intent, have left us with a Christianity that has succeeded in changing the god we worship, but not in changing our attitudes to follow in his ways. And not knowing and following in Yahweh’s ways is tantamount to not knowing him at all (Heb 3:10; Ps 103:7).

Conclusion

So let me wrap up by asking you to do a test on yourself.

  1. If you think “salvation” is all about forgiveness of sins – you’ve lost sight of the political Messiah.

  2. If you think the endgame is either heaven or hell – you have questions to answer about why your New Testament speaks of a resurrected body for a place that doesn’t need a body.

  3. If the term “Jesus is Lord” simply leads you to think of Jesus only as a divine being sitting on a throne instead of the real President or Prime Minister of your country or the world – you’re still in the divine-Jesus-only mode.

  4. If whiles reading the Gospels, the term “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” leads you to think only of angels in the sky playing harps – you need to re-examine your eschatology.

Now that I’ve “cleared my throat” on who a Messiah truly is and what we might be missing in looking at Jesus only with divine glasses on, I can delve into Ghanaian politics in the next post. Suffice it to say that I won’t be pulling any punches on my observations on Ghanaian politics and what Jesus would make of the church’s attitude to politics today.