Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Does the Resurrection of Jesus Really Matter?

If the life and death of Jesus perfected our reconciliation with God (see below), why the resurrection? If the words "it is finished" are an apt description of the cross, why was Jesus raised? If we are saved by the blood of Jesus, who could ask for anything more?

These questions show that the way we talk about the saving significance of Christ's life and death seems to make the resurrection an afterthought. This may explain why so many modern theologians have found it so easy to question the historicity of the resurrection. Certainly they are propelled by the modern suspicion of the miraculous. But modern theologians will stand by a miracle when they feel it is needed for the integrity of the faith. Yet again and again, people have found ways to have faith in Christ without faith in the empty tomb.

And before you swiftly dismiss these modern notions of resurrection-less faith, take note of the fact that the resurrection often plays no explicit role in the faith of those who do defend it as history. Sure, they stick by it as a matter of principle, usually connected to the authority of Scripture. But do they really take seriously the function of resurrection in the economy of salvation? If the best we can do is say "The Bible says...", then we have not yet begun to explore the significance of the resurrection for us.

Well, why does the resurrection matter? I would argue that the resurrection is best understood as the revelation of who Jesus is and what he has done.

Who is Jesus in light of the resurrection? Well, people are not raised into glory just any time. For first century Jews, that's something that happens at the end of time to everyone. But to happen in the middle of time to one man shows that this man is actually the Lord and Judge of the world, seated at the right hand of God himself.

What did Jesus do in the light of the resurrection? Since God has raised him, Jesus' life and death is proven to be vindicated. He lived and died for us, achieving for us forgiveness of sins and new life. God has forgiven us in the death of Christ, and we know this to be the case because he raised him from the dead.

But what if Jesus lived and died and that was it? Would our salvation really be won? Yes! But would it do us any good? No! Upon the completion of his history, Jesus Christ now contains within himself the new life of a redeemed humanity. But how will that new life get to us? He must be raised so that what he has achieved for us may become available to us. He must traverse the barrier of time and space so that we can partake of the goods he has in his possession. It is this transition from him to us that makes the resurrection so important, so essential to the story of our redemption.

Any thoughts?

Is it true that allowing certain beliefs to go un-integrated makes them vulnerable to unbelief?
Does this account of the resurrection's significance help to make it more essential to our faith?
Is there some other way to think about the resurrection that better accounts for its significance?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Why Didn't Jesus Just Die Right Away?

If Jesus came to die for our sins, why didn't he just die right away? Why did God not ordain that his son would die under Herod's slaying of the infants? If he was the true incarnation of God in human flesh, why not die as our substitute right off the bat? Certainly he would have already been the spotless sacrifice, for who is more sinless than an innocent child?

Well, we know this is not what happened. It happened that Jesus grew up, called disciples, taught, healed. In other words, he lived before he died. So the biblical history being what it is, I have no interest in challenging its sensibility. But, in order to dive into the sense of the story, we may and even must ask why it happened the way it did. Because there must be some reason why Jesus didn't die for our sins right away.

I would guess that the initial answer to this question is that the time between his birth and death was the time of his teaching. In terms of one classic distinction, Jesus first fulfilled his prophetic office before proceeding to fulfill his priestly office. Certainly there is merit in this retort, especially as it brings to light that Christ came to do more than simply die. However, is this answer really adequate? Can Jesus' teaching and atonement be so separated? Does his life have so little to do with his death? Are his teachings just a "meantime" activity? Such an answer does not do justice to either his life or his death.

A more adequate answer to the question may be found by challenging the assumption beneath the question itself. Could Jesus really have died right away? Is the requisite substitute for our sin only God enfleshed in a sinless human being? Isn't there more to our reconciliation with God than this? Yes! The perfection of Jesus cannot be understood as a static freedom from sin. Rather, the perfection of Jesus is accomplished as a perfecting of our human life extended over history. His whole perfected history stands as a substitute for our failed histories - or, better yet, for the failed history of humanity as a whole. Check out the temptation stories (Mt 4 = Lk 4) in contrast to the Deuteronomy stories which Jesus quotes to catch a glimpse of how Jesus succeeded where we failed.

Thinking about the atonement this way not only answers the question, but avoids splitting Jesus' life and death. For Jesus in his entire history - both life and death - is our substitute. He has re-lived (or "recapitulated") the life that we did not live so that we may live again in him. And Jesus as this perfected one (with his "acquired righteousness" so to speak) has died the death we deserved so that we do not have to die.

Any thoughts?
Does this answer address the concern of the question?
Is the initial answer really as bad as I portrayed it?
How does the resurrection fit in here ... it certainly does - but how?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Creator of the Universe and the God of Israel

Most Christians take for granted that the creator of the universe and the God of Israel are one and the same being. The one who made the heavens and the earth is the one who called Abraham. The one who brought Israel out of Egypt is the one who made man and woman in his own image. Not much debate here, at least within the hermeneutical circle of the Christian community.

But there is a subtle difference of approaching this equation that can have far reaching consequences. The question can be put this way: Is the Creator of the Universe the God of Israel, or is the God of Israel the Creator of the Universe? In other words, which is given priority: the universality of the divine creator or the particularity of the divine covenant? Let's take a look at each view in turn.

The Creator of the Universe is the God of Israel

The point here is that we all know something about the creator of the universe. There is a general human common ground here. Christians come along and say, "Hey, that thing you call 'God,' or 'The Ultimate,' or 'The Supreme Being' happens to be the God who linked himself up with the history of Israel culminating in Jesus Christ."

The advantage to this way of speaking is that the universal scope of God's reign is emphasized. Also, a point of contact is established between people's assumptions about divinity and their fulfillment in Scriptural revelation. The disadvantage is that the particular history of Israel can be construed as a mere "illustration" of what is already true between God and the world, rendering it superfluous. Also, the unique claims of Christ are harder to hold up when the universality of God is already assumed.

The God of Israel is the Creator of the Universe

The point here is that if there is a specific revelation of God we should start there, before moving on to the larger implications of who God is in relation to the world. God has chosen to focus his dealings with creation and humanity on the one little nation of Israel. Through this nation he desires to bless all the nations of the world. But this particular history always remains in the foreground, even as God opens up his covenant to the Gentiles.

The advantage to this way of thinking is that the particular identity of God is emphasized. Thus one is not caught in the forecourt of philosophical questions of whether God exists or what God is like, but rather turns directly to who God is. Also, this view can serve to support claims about the uniqueness of Jesus the Jew. The disadvantage of this approach is that one is always tangled up in questions of the scope of mercy outside the history of covenant (e.g., "what about the man on the desert Island?)". Also, this view has a harder time building bridges across cultural boundaries because the identity of God is so tied to the particularly cultural history of Israel

What do you think?
Is the Creator of the Universe the God of Israel?
Or is the God of Israel the Creator of the Universe?
How do you decide?
In what ways does this distinction play itself out practically?
For instance, do you communicate the Gospel differently in each case?Is there something missing from this discussion?
Is there a way to use both of these approaches?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Mission is the Mother of Theology: Problem, Permanent, or Perpetual?

You may have heard it said, "Christian doctrine is really just baptized Greek philosophy." Let's take a look at this claim and consider how one might respond to it.

In order to curb the pejorative tone of this accusation, it is important to note the motive behind Christian use of Greek philosophy. In an important early twentieth century essay, Martin Kahler declared, "Mission is the mother of theology." What he meant by this is that the early church first began to theologize (explicit reflection on its teaching) in response to the missional encounter of the gospel in new cultures. In other words, the early Christians embedded their claims into the language and mind-set of its pagan mission field in order to bring them into the fold. Such mission-driven theology can be seen at work specifically in the intertwining of Greco-Roman culture and the Hebrew Scriptures, first in an incipient form in the New Testament and later in the full-blown synthesis of Trinitarian and Christological doctrines.

Most people would not quarrel with whether this happened. It is certainly an aspect of the historical development of Christianity. The question is what to do about it now that it is the case. What do we do with all this Greek philosophy commingled with classic Christian doctrine? As I see it, there are three logical options:

(1) Problematic - One view would be that the existence of Greek ideas in Christian doctrine is a problem to be solved. One might be charitable enough to say that this synthesis was innocent in its day, but it must be eradicated now. Greek philosophy is dated at best, and pernicious at worst. We must clear off the husk of cultural expression and get back to the kernel of Gospel truth. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, but theology has grown up and no longer needs its mother.

(2) Permanent - The opposite view would be that the synthesis achieved by the early Christians is the essential form of Christianity. There was no Christianity properly-so-called until this encounter took place. Orthodoxy's dependence on Greek philosophy is therefore not a problem to be solved but a relationship to be explored. To retrieve a robust Christian faith in our day requires a simultaneous retrieval of the insights of Greek philosophy and culture. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, and thou shalt honor thy mother.

(3) Perpetual - There is a third view that the cultural embedding of the gospel is a perpetual process that must occur over and over again. On each new mission field, theology once again does its work of reflecting on the gospel and its claims in the new context. This is a hybrid view, for on the one hand it agrees with the first view that past cultural expressions are not normative, while on the other hand it does not disparage those cultural expressions for what they are. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, and each new mission is the mother of a new theology.

What do you think?
Would you agree that mission is the mother of theology?
Is this a fair account of the possible responses to this fact?
Is there a possible response not listed?
Toward which approach do you lean? Why?
Should we make use of all of these options in a case-specific manner? If so, which options go with which issues?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Traveling Light

I have been a backpacker since I could walk. One of the most important principles of backpacking is weight. It is not just how fit the hiker is (though that helps), but how light the hiker is. Certainly this applies to the weight of one’s body. But the more relevant variable is the weight of one’s pack. If your pack is heavy, so are you, and every pound – every ounce – slows you down. So when I prep for backpacking, I cut my toothbrush in half, count calories per ounce in my food, and (most importantly) leave behind supposed “necessities.”

Of course, I am not the only one who does this. Traveling light has become a bit of a fad. Not only in backpacking, but life in general – including matters of faith. Christians around the globe are searching for a “churchless Christianity” or “Jesus without the church.” [Note: The fact that this fad is not actually new does not concern me here; I am less interested with the genetics of this pattern and more with its current form].

I think traveling light in matters of faith is a good idea. I have no vested interest in preserving the institutional church as-is. Cutting away excess is the heart of reform in every age, and I willingly and joyfully participate in such a move.

But, traveling light is not an end in itself. What would you say if I packed a 9-pound dry pack, then sat at home and watched a James Bond marathon? You would rightfully jeer, because reaching a light pack is no achievement in and of itself. It is a means to an end. The goal is to hike more miles. I pack light only in order to travel light.

The same applies in matters of faith. Freeing oneself from the shackles of ungenerous orthodoxy or institutional preservation are no accomplishments themselves. It’s actually quite easy and rather unimpressive. I will save my applause for those who develop doctrine and transform institutions in service of the church’s mission. The church is sent to proclaim Christ and do his work to the ends of the earth. As Matthew 10, Acts 15, and the whole Epistle to the Galatians attest, there are doctrines and practices that unnecessarily hinder the mission. A truly missional church will joyfully put itself under this kind of Gospel-centered criticism.

So what does this look like? Well, it starts with not giving up on the church. Then the next step is to follow criticism with construction. Tell us what’s wrong, but tell us more about how to do it right. The path to construction comes by mulling over one’s criticism with these questions in mind: What about this doctrine or practice bothers me? Is the motivation for my criticism truly missional? If so, what does the missional alternative look like? And if you are not willing to enter into these constructive reflections, then maybe you should consider putting your criticisms on the shelf. For goodness sake, if you are not going to hike, stop cutting your toothbrush in half!

What do you think?
Is traveling light a good idea?
Does a missional understanding help?
How can we avoid the twin dangers of institutionalism and spiritualism?
Am I right that criticism without construction is incomplete?
How else might one move from criticism to construction?