Opinions on faith and life

Is This Enlightenment, or a Rube Goldberg Machine?

2012-05-02

I’ve often written about the need for balance in Christianity--- not the balance that is mistaken for compromise of the essentials of the faith, but the balance that pairs justice with mercy, holiness with love, and knowledge with spirit. I’ve also written about the fact that the church neither replaced Israel nor was replaced by Israel, but is instead a new creation, a third entity besides Jew and Gentile, the believers of both groups being grafted not into one or the other but into the Vine which is Christ Jesus. And I’ve noted in my writings on prophecy and Revelation that these three groups--- Jew, Gentile, Christian--- at least in some way keep their separate identities in heaven.

So when I read Kingdom and Cross and the comments there, I saw some points along these lines which I think deserve some attention. I agree with the basic premise and focus of the article: that the tendency of Christians to lean too far to one side or the other is a difficult problem to solve. And I don’t know that there’s a clear or easy answer to the central, bolded question (Why do you think it is so hard to keep kingdom and cross together for so many in the Christian tradition? What separates them?). But some phrases, if I understood them accurately, raised a few red flags in my mind. [Though the writer (Scott McKnight) is reviewing a book by someone else (N. T. Wright), I’ll just address the statements as they are and not keep distinguishing between the author’s views and those of the reviewer.]

The first statement is, The thesis of How God Became King is that God became King through Jesus... who represents Israel and the church. God was always King, always the source and supreme authority in existence. The only sense in which God could become king is when new beings were created; one cannot be the king of nothing! So God did not become king through Jesus, but through the act of creation. Also, I don’t think that it’s entirely accurate to say that Jesus represents Israel and the church. Perhaps as intermediary, as High Priest, but not as what appears in this instance to mean a type or allegory. This is not to say that I think Wright or McKnight believe Jesus is merely an allegory, but that I would disagree with this statement if it means he symbolizes them.

The next one is, Their suffering is part of the redemptive process (Col 1:24). But that verse never specifies redemption; there is a certain amount of suffering that had to befall Christ and his Body, but the reason is not given. Yet the bulk of the New Testament teaches that redemption was all accomplished at the cross: not due to Jesus’ suffering, but due to his death. And it was his blood alone, sinless and divine, which purchased/redeemed us (Heb. 9:12, Rev. 5:9). The teaching that redemption was not fully accomplished as these scriptures state but included also Jesus’ (and our) suffering is a distinctive of Roman Catholicism and possibly also Gnosticism, and certainly Mormonism. Our redemption did not begin in the Garden of Gethsemane or continue in the scourges of Roman execution methods, but in Jesus’ shed blood and sacrificed life. There is more than one good reason that the shadows of Old Testament sacrifices did not involve making the animals suffer before being killed. In fact, our suffering is not the instrument of our redemption but the result of the curse, wherein we were made mortal and the earth was given over to struggle and decay. So neither Jesus’ nor our own suffering is redemptive but only resultant, and is in fact the thing we are redeemed from.

Now to the comments. One asks some valid questions:

I don’t understand the ‘Israel ‘transformed’ idea. Which Israel? Not all Israel are Israel. Was the not Israel transformed, well not as far as I can see. Was the true Israel transformed? They didn’t need to be. Were Abraham and Moses and David and Isaiah and others like them in need of transformation? It doesn’t look like it. What is the transformation supposed to be? Was it the giving of the Spirit? But the Spirit was present in the Old Testament. Did Abraham not have the Spirit? If he didn’t, how was he accepted as righteous? Let’s have some exposition in detail about such things as ‘transformation’ and ‘story’. Wright doesn’t give detail, but constantly deals in generalities.
My issue is with the question, Did Abraham not have the Spirit? If he didn’t, how was he accepted as righteous? Yet we are told explicitly how Abraham was accepted as righteous: his faith; see Romans 4, especially the quote of Gen. 15:6. The operation of the Spirit in the OT was not to indwell all righteous persons as is the case for the church, but to work externally--- with a few notable (and sometimes temporary) exceptions.

Other comments affirm the article’s premise of redemptive suffering, and one cites Isaiah in support. But again, suffering is the result of sin, not the cure for it. I would think it obvious that the world has endured more than enough suffering, even if we limit it to the church or Israel. If suffering is the means of redemption, there was no need for Jesus to suffer at all. This idea is nothing less than salvation by works, negating the very concept of a gift. If we suffer, even if not for ourselves but for others, it is not Jesus who saved them but us; it is not faith that saves, but works. Jesus does not have to continually offer himself in sacrifice, even by proxy; this is repeated many times in the book of Hebrews, especially chapters 7, 9, and 10.

I marvel that educated, godly scholars can forget the absolute most central tenet of the faith: salvation by faith in the finished work of Christ and his resurrection from the dead. Scholarship should clarify rather than obfuscate, and simplify rather than confuse. Just as in theoretical physics where there seems to be a tendency to pursue elaborate theories to the point where they bear no resemblance to reality or common sense, so also is there a tendency in theology to respond to a puzzling bit of scripture with something that only makes things worse. The sophistication of many such theories is certainly impressive, but sometimes it’s rather like constructing a mind-bogglingly complex house of cards balanced on a single pin--- and if the pin is not secure, the whole thing comes crashing down.

Though I enjoy a good academic exercise as much as the next person, I have striven over the years to pursue simplicity, such that the purpose of elaborate explanations should always serve to support rather than undermine the simple, clear, faith-based gospel.