I Am the Very Model of a Biblical Philologist
Published on Dec 11, 2014. A biblical- and ancient-Near-Eastern-studies–themed parody of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" from The Pirates of Penzance. Lyrics, musical arrangement, and vocals by Joshua Tyra, ⓒ 2011. Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, original lyrics by William S. Gilbert.
Denial of the inerrancy of the Bible is not the start of a slippery slope on the way to
'doctrines of demons.' The repudiation of inerrancy (from Turretin to Warfield and the
Chicago Statement of Faith) is the beginning of being able to 'rightly divide the word
of truth. - Michael Hardin
"Biblical criticism is perennially caught between the Scylla of interpretive freedom and the
of truth. - Michael Hardin
"Biblical criticism is perennially caught between the Scylla of interpretive freedom and the
Charybdis of irrelevance. Too much hermeneutic freedom and the tradition disintegrates,
losing its epistemological appeal. Too little interpretive freedom and the Bible becomes
merely an irrelevant historical artifact, rather than the living word of God." Inherently,
evangelical biblical interpretation is unquestionably caught between a need for relevance
and the need for textual validity." - R.E. Slater
I begin this post with a humorous video on biblical philology to show just how intense the discussion of the truthfulness of the bible can be with many readers and academics. Over the several years of writing Relevancy22 I have attempted to sort out how to read the bible authoritatively but not with the "literal authority" so many have come to identify it with.
Wikipedia - Philology
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary criticism, history, and linguistics. It is more commonly defined as the study of literary texts and written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning.
Classical philology is the philology of Classical Sanskrit, Greek and Classical Latin. Classical philology is historically originating principally from the Library of Pergamum and the Library of Alexandria around the 4th century BCE, continued by Greeks and Romans throughout the Roman and Byzantine Empires, preserved and promoted during the Islamic Golden Age and eventually taken up by European scholars of The Renaissance, where it was soon joined by philologies of other languages both European (Germanic, Celtic, Slavistics, etc.) and non-European (Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, etc.). Indo-European studies involves the comparative philology of all Indo-European languages.
Any classical language can be studied philologically, and indeed describing a language as "classical" is to imply the existence of a philological tradition associated with it.
Because of its focus on historical development (diachronic analysis), philology came to be used as a term contrasting with linguistics. This is due to a 20th-century development triggered by Ferdinand de Saussure's insistence on the importance of synchronic analysis, and the later emergence of structuralism and Chomskyan linguistics with its emphasis on syntax.
By teaching a "literal bible" we come into all sorts of errors and misjudgments about the Christian faith and what it should mean for ourselves. A faith too easily subverted towards arguing for fallible human judgments rather than searching our hearts and minds for its truths. We grant to this kind of a bible a status of "infallible revelation" which in time comes to mean "what we want it to mean" and not what it is teaching. We claim an infallibility to its authorship rather than to understand those writers as fallible teachers even as we are ourselves are to God's modes, methods, and means of revealing Himself to the world. We confuse an "inspired book" with an inspiring Holy Spirit and raise the bible upon an "altar of ourselves" rather than submit it to the very One who is its words in Jesus. The very One whom demonstrated how errant temple teachings may become when lifting religion over faith, merciless judgment over grace and forgiveness, doctrine over compassion. That humanly constructed dogmas create undue boundaries that are unfounded and untrue despite our all-too-human attempts to make them true.
As such, I have made a plea to read the bible sensibly and with a mindset to its discovery beyond the words and ancient logics applied to its pages over the centuries by the church. To not over-read it by forcing upon its text our own pet doctrines, dogmas, and traditional church folklores as we have been taught. Nor to under-read it as if it were simply another piece of uninspired, unauthoritative, fallible book of literary quality. That in some sense, as a human production it is, but in another sense, it is not, having been written by God Himself through the pens of fallible prophets, priests, and kings. Without its divine communication we are left to the human senses of natural theology, logic, and philosophy. But with its revelation we must struggle with what all this must mean to ourselves and our world.
And so, the bible is not simply a human production but a graced collective of many events, experiences, and teachings from God Himself who has used these life settings to tell us of Himself, His mission, and His love. Without this (divine) revelation we would be the poorer. In essence, the bible becomes the Bible for those of us touched by God's grace, mercy, and forgiveness. It is a holy thing but not so holy as to be handled without asking the basic questions we would ask of any author, plot device, or storyline set in time and space, event and liturgy.
Inasmuch then, the Bible will discriminate against us, condemn us, praise us, ask pithy questions of our true nature and intentions, isolate us, and project us forward into new ways of thinking and behaviors we would not have thought possible without its force in our lives. As such, it is to be treated both lightly and reverently, roughly and maddeningly, dispassionately and passionately, by all that is within our natures as we wrestle like the patriarch Jacob of old (Genesis 32.22-32). Not with its own documentaries but with the documentary of the Spirit of God within our own lives refusing to relent of the Hound of Heaven's grip upon us until He touches us upon our thigh to end the fight and we receive some moticum of His grace, protection, leadership, and guidance.
And it is to this end that the doctrine of Inerrancy was formed. To avow God's leadership in the lives of His people searching for a simpler way to keep the revelation of God from becoming a common thing. And it is not without appreciating this motive that I write here today. It is a worthy motive attempted - but a motive that makes of Christianity its own worse enemy by blinding it to the natural struggle we should have with God's words and movement both in our lives and in the life of the world itself.
I would much prefer an errant Bible over an inerrant bible (notice the "B/b's") for I think it is all too easy to confuse our words with God's when we pretend to interpret its pages according to the book of ourselves and not the book of Jesus. I do believe it is possible to have an uplifted sense of the Bible as God's divine revelation by holding to its errancy, fallibility, and existential struggle to find self and identity, purpose and mission, meaning and hope, courage and strength, in a wicked world devoted to distancing and defeating the God of all grace and mercy. I fear though, when we replace our words with God's when holding to an inerrant, infallible, authoritative bible, then grants all forms of Christian vitriol, prejudice, militarism, and cultural nationalism, when led out by well-meaning, but wholly fallible, preaching and church standards.
In many ways this sounds paradoxical. And I admit, it is. But I would rather hold to a Bible that might question myself than to a bible that questions everyone else but myself (sic, "since I alone know the truth as I have interpreted it and preached it to others different from myself"). If anything, the Christian path of enlightenment is fraught with misjudgment, failure, a process of unlearning what we thought we knew, and deep humility. Holding to an errant Bible allows me to preach it strongly - but also weakly - in grace and humility than with the blinded vigor of religious zeal. It allows me to search its Scripture with more of an open mind and heart than with preformed personal judgments. It judges myself before I judge others. It seeks the plank out of mine own eye than that of another. It searches me before it searches my world. And many times it tells me I am the one who must change and not the other guy I deemed too crude, unworthy, or condemned.
In contrast, a document whose outlay I already know by heart from youth is not a document that is any longer open but closed to my deceitful heart. It demands my obedience to its interpretations as I have learned it from others - usually interpretations that are less than generous, critical of society, and refusing to see God's handiwork everywhere about us (unless it is on my own terms and cognition). This is the kind of document I fear has been formed in the wake of the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy (see description below). It purports on openness but doesn't listen to anyone beyond its own fellowship. Refusing broader discussions that would question why it holds to what it holds simply on the grounds that "the bible tells me so!" as I know it and understand it. It requires a simultaneous sophistication of thinking while learning to more humbly listen to other viewpoints and claimants. It is a more messy process of struggling with God than what I have learned from my past which has spiritualized everything in its wake with "biblical doctrine and verse" (according to the doctrines and interpretations of the evangelist I read or listened to at one time or another).
Lastly, I've grown up with a lot of specious, or false, logic in my day. Too much of it actually. The article by R.C. Sproul is an instance of this thinking basing itself on the presumed description that the bible is "inerrant" in all its stories and content. As such, Sproul goes through the logic of his position as he judges the worldly discipline of higher criticism (including the young man who holds this position) as being inferior to his superior position of biblical inerrancy. It is the kind of "spiritualized logic" or "evangelic apologetic" that is all too frequently heard from my fellowship group. It provides comfort to the reader choosing to follow Sproul and his teachings but condemnation to the "unworthy one" who would disagree with him, like myself.
And so, it has been from within this church environment I have been re-birthed into the wider world of an errant Bible. One that I hope provides more hope and greater force of spirituality than I presently see in the church's pre-modern doctrines and statements of Protestant Scholasticism (see below), contemporary Fundamentalism, and conservative Evangelicalism. More the rather, I know the Word of God as the progressive, post-modern church of Jesus Christ searching for a broader anthropologic hermeneutic based upon a radicalizing theology admitting contemporary sciences and other academic disciplines into the discussion of God, world, event, sin, and salvation. This I believe gives to the Bible its greatest breadth and depth of reading and interpretation while also importantly allowing its skeptics and disbelievers to read and engage as well rather than disallowing any efforts of agnosticism or atheism to broach its pages.
In some small sense, this messiness I have entered into has created a very necessary transitionary bridge that I write of here again and again at Relevancy22. One that might cross over from the old world into the next world to come. It has not been an easy struggle. Nor should it be, because I have left many a good heart and intention in the transition between old and new. And yet, it must be done and will be done, if not by myself, than by others who I use quite liberally when discovering meaning response and thought. The gospel of Christ is too precious a thing to leave unfolded and unread by hot and bitter eyes by either believer or unbeliever alike. It demands a cost. A martyrdom of self. A hope that gives life rather than take it away. And it is this hope which I wish to grant again as a preacher of God's Holy Word. A hope of reclamation of humanity to itself through love and service to one another as unto God Himself.
To Jesus our Saviour, Redeemer, Lord, and most benevolent of Kings,
July 15, 2015
Wikipedia - Inerrancy
Biblical inerrancy, as formulated in the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy", is the doctrine that the Bible "is without error or fault in all its teaching"; or, at least, that "Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact".
A formal statement in favor of biblical inerrancy was published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1978. The signatories to the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" admit that "inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture". However, even though there may be no extant original manuscripts of the Bible, those which exist can be considered inerrant, because, as the statement reads: "the autographic text of Scripture, ... in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy".
Some equate inerrancy with infallibility; others do not. Biblical inerrancy should not be confused with Biblical literalism.
There are a minority of biblical inerrantists who go further than the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy", arguing that the original text has been perfectly preserved and passed down through time.
The copies of the original language texts that are used by modern translators as the source for translations of the books of the Bible are reconstructions of the original text. Today's versions are based upon scholarly comparison of thousands of biblical manuscripts (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls) and thousands of biblical citations in the writings of the earlyChurch Fathers.
The "doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture" held by the Catholic Church, as expressed by the Second Vatican Council, is that "the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."
Wikipedia - Scholasticism
Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics ("scholastics," or "schoolmen") of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context. It originated as an outgrowth of, and a departure from, Christian monastic schools at the earliest European universities. The first institutions in the West to be considered universities were established in Italy, France, Spain, and England in the late 11th and the 12th centuries for the study of arts, law, medicine, and theology, such as Schola Medica Salernitana, the University of Bologna, and the University of Paris. It is difficult to define the date at which they became true universities, although the lists of studia generalia for higher education in Europe held by the Catholic Church and its various religious orders are a useful guide.
Not so much a philosophy or a theology as a method of learning, scholasticism places a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference, and to resolve contradictions. Scholastic thought is also known for rigorous conceptual analysis and the careful drawing of distinctions. In the classroom and in writing, it often takes the form of explicit disputation: a topic drawn from the tradition is broached in the form of a question, opponents' responses are given, a counterproposal is argued and opponent's arguments rebutted. Because of its emphasis on rigorous dialectical method, scholasticism was eventually applied to many other fields of study.
As a program, scholasticism began as an attempt at harmonization on the part of medieval Christian thinkers: to harmonize the various authorities of their own tradition, and to reconcile Christian theology with classical and late antiquity philosophy, especially that of Aristotle but also of Neoplatonism. (See also Christian apologetics.)
Some of the main figures of scholasticism include Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, Alexander of Hales, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas's masterwork Summa Theologica, considered to be the pinnacle of scholastic, medieval, and Christian philosophy, began while Aquinas was regent master at the studium provinciale of Santa Sabina in Rome, the forerunner of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum. Important work in the scholastic tradition has been carried on well past Aquinas's time, for instance by Francisco Suárez and Luis de Molina, and also among Lutheran and Reformed thinkers.
* * * * * * * * * *
What Difference Does an Inerrant Bible Make?
by R.C. Sproul
March 4, 2015
Does it matter whether the Bible is errant or inerrant, fallible or infallible, inspired or uninspired? What’s all the fuss about the doctrine of inerrancy? Why do Christians debate this issue? What difference does an inerrant Bible make?
Before answering that question, we should consider in what way inerrancy doesn’t make a difference. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states:
We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith. We further affirm that such confession should lead to increasing conformity to the image of Christ. We denythat such confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences both to the individual and to the church (Article 19).
The statement strikes a delicate balance. It affirms that the doctrine of inerrancy is “vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith” and that to deny it has grave consequences for the individual and the church. However, this statement also makes clear that belief in inerrancy is not necessary for salvation. While inerrancy is crucial for understanding the Christian faith and “increasing conformity to the image of Christ,” a person does not have to hold to it to be a Christian.
The Authority of Christ
But what difference does the inerrancy of Scripture make? Why does it matter? There are many ways in which it matters a great deal. However, ultimately, the inerrancy of Scripture is not a doctrine about a book. The issue is the person and work of Christ.
Allow me to illustrate. Years ago I was speaking in Philadelphia on the question of the authority of Scripture. After my lecture I came down to the front of the church, and I saw a man making his way toward me. Instantly, I recognized his face, even though it had been about twenty years since I’d seen him last. His name was Charlie. We were roommates in college and prayer partners. We made our way through the crowd and embraced one another.
We dismissed ourselves from the conference and went out for dinner. As we sat down, Charlie said to me, “Before we have a conversation, there is something I have to tell you.” I said, “What’s that?” He told me, “I don’t believe any more what I used to believe about Scripture when we were in college together. Back then I believed in inerrancy, but I’ve been to seminary and have been exposed to higher criticism. I just don’t believe that the Bible is inerrant anymore. I wanted to clear the air so that we can go on from there.” I replied, “Fine, Charlie, but let me ask you this. What do you still believe from the old days?” And triumphantly Charlie said, “I still believe that Jesus Christ is my Savior and my Lord.” I was happy to hear that, but then I started to ask questions that clearly made Charlie uncomfortable.
I asked, “Charlie, how is Jesus Lord of your life?” He replied, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, a Lord is someone who exercises authority over you, who gives you marching orders, who has the ability to compel you to obey, and who requires you to submit to obligation and duty. If Christ is your Lord, aren’t you saying He has sovereign authority over you?” “Yeah,” he said.
I probed a little deeper, “How does Christ exercise that sovereignty over you? How do you get your marching orders from Him? It’s apparently not from the Bible.” Charlie thought for a moment, “I get it from the church.” I said, “Okay, which church? The Methodist Church, the Episcopalian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, or the Presbyterian Church?” He answered, “The Presbyterian Church.” I then asked, “The Presbyterian Church in Wichita, the Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, or the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia—which church?” He answered, “The General Assembly.” I replied, “Which General Assembly?” He finally admitted, “Well, I’ve got some problems that I haven’t worked out yet.” I said, “You certainly do have problems that you haven’t worked out yet. You want to affirm the Lordship of Christ, but your Lord is impotent. He has no way of conveying any mandate to you whatsoever, because you stand above the recorded mandates of Christ in Scripture. You set yourself over them in critical judgment.”
The Integrity of Christ
At this point, our conversation shifted from the question of authority to the question of salvation. I asked Charlie, “What would it take for Jesus to save you? If Jesus sinned, could He save Himself? Could He save you?” He acknowledged that if Jesus were a sinner, He couldn’t save Himself, let alone Charlie and me. But then Charlie asked, “What difference does it make whether we believe in inerrancy? And how does Jesus’ being sinless relate to your point?” “Because Charlie,” I said, “Jesus taught inerrancy.”
My conversation with Charlie demonstrated an interesting phenomenon. Charlie, like many contemporary biblical scholars who deny inerrancy, agreed that Jesus of Nazareth believed and taught what we would today call the doctrine of inerrancy. At the same time, like many contemporary biblical scholars who deny inerrancy, Charlie confessed Jesus as His Lord and Savior. But that is inconsistent, and I wanted to point that out to my friend. So I asked him, “Okay, now you are disagreeing not with me or B. B. Warfield or Charles Hodge of the old Princeton School. Now you are quarreling with Jesus and the apostles and the prophets. Were they wrong?” He said, “Yes, they were wrong.” “Okay,” I said. “Think seriously about it. What are the implications of Jesus being wrong about His doctrine of Scripture?” Charlie, an astute theologian, said, “Look, R.C., what difference does it make whether Jesus was wrong? Jesus doesn’t have to be omniscient to be my Savior.” I agreed, “He doesn’t.”
The issue in our conversation, however, was not omniscience. When we talk about omniscience, we are talking about an attribute of God. That is, God knows everything. Charlie’s point was that Jesus—touching his human nature—did not know all things. He then went right to the Bible to prove it, pointing out, for example, that Jesus does not know the day and hour of His return (Matt. 24:36). But the conversation I had with Charlie wasn’t really about omniscience. It was actually about sinlessness.
Touching His human nature, Jesus is not required to be omniscient to be my Savior. However, He is required to be sinless. Jesus would be numbered among the transgressors for teaching an error. He claimed to speak on the basis on His Father’s authority (John 8:28; 14:10). He also declared, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). That is the highest claim to teaching authority ever uttered. If a man who claims to be the truth and to say nothing except by divine authority teaches error, that’s sin. And if He sins once, we don’t have a Savior. That’s what is at stake.
When I spelled this out for Charlie, he told me, “I’ve got a problem.” To which I replied, “Yes, you do. You want to get rid of Jesus’ view of Scripture and hold onto Him as your Savior and Lord. You’re on very shaky grounds, if you want to be consistent.” Charlie was living in the delightful breeze of a happy inconsistency. But do you see what the issue is here? It is the integrity of Christ.
Charlie is a good example of a person who can deny inerrancy but still believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. But this is possible only if one is inconsistent. Happily, God doesn’t demand perfect consistency in our theology for salvation. If that were the case, no sinner could be saved because no sinner holds to a perfect theology. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should be content with inconsistency. At the end of the day, inerrancy is inseparable from Christology. If Jesus didn’t teach this view of Scripture, the argument would be over. The issue is not the sacrosanctity of a book, a “paper pope,” or bibliolatry. The issue at stake is the integrity of the person and work of Jesus. He can save us only if He is sinless, and He is sinless only if all of His teaching—including what He teaches about Scripture—is true.
* * * * * * * * * *
In lieu of Michael's article below refer to Wikipedia's article on:
(sic, Memetic Desire & Violence and the Sacred)
* * * * * * * * * *
|Rene Girard with Michael Hardin|
FINDING OUR WAY HOME:
A BRIEF NOTE ON THE AUTHORITY
AND INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE
by Michael Hardin
You recently asked me to write something on Jesus’ hermeneutic. That one can even speak of Jesus’ hermeneutic is a blessing today. Between the churches removal of Jesus behind the veil of dualism and the academy’s burial of Jesus in historical science, it truly is a wonder that we are able to speak the words Jesus and hermeneutic in the same breath.
Some thirty years ago when I began studying Scripture, I found that I had a lot of questions. Every subject I tackled led to ten more subjects, all of which I felt driven to understand just to comprehend whatever book I was reading at the time. Over the years, I have accumulated hundreds of thousands of questions, the questions of the authors whose books I have read.
Their questions led me on some amazing journeys with breath-taking vistas around every corner. Writers from all places and times, backgrounds and faiths each seemed to have a piece to contribute to the overall picture. More so, many of these writers captivated me and I read everything they wrote that I could get my hands on. I could sense that somewhere deep within the questions was a solution. I knew that Jesus was that solution.
I believe that Jesus has something to teach us and tell us about the Creator that we have consistently missed throughout our history, Christians included. It is the secret of the kingdom of heaven: God is forgiving, God is not conflicted, and God is not violent. Jesus’ Jewish spirituality recognizes this through and through. It is the one singular thing his contemporaries did not want to hear. It is the one singular thing we do not want to hear. Jesus’ God is not an angry God. It is demonstrated in the way he lives and forgives others in the name of this God. It (this life of forgiveness) is, in a sense, ontologized within history as the eschatological horizon of the resurrection; the resurrection of the forgiving innocent victim. It is the one message that is differentiated from every other form of religious discourse. Jesus teaches us this.
However, it is necessary for us to understand the roots and trajectories of our sacrificial thinking as Christians. We need to deconstruct before we can re-construct. Sort of like what the folks on the PBS show This Old House do. They take an old house whose structure is solid, take it down to the basics, which are sound, and re-build on that structure. Christian theology, for me, is like This Old House. It is tired, old, worn, beaten and generally in great need of repair. Through the eyes of the folks who rebuild houses and see within a decrepit building a beautiful home that with time, effort and attention can be an enjoyable habitation, so also I think we can do the same with Christian theology.
Theology is a beautiful science because theology is about Jesus
Theology is a beautiful science because theology is about Jesus
Let’s look at some of the stuff on our theological house that is no longer useful. Let’s examine whether or not we need to restructure some of the interior of our house. Then let’s rebuild.
Using Paul Ricoeur’s language we might say that if the church is mired in a first naivete, the academy is no less stuck in critical distance. Neither one is able to speak of Jesus credibly with any sense of unity. It is the third stage of the understanding process, which Ricoeur calls a ‘second naivete’ from which I write. Since I am neither in the academy nor in the parish, I do not feel constrained by either when I consider the question of Jesus’ hermeneutic. The ‘historical Jesus’ is slick and slippery, and just when you think you have a grasp, he slips away. The ‘Christ of faith’ is a gigantic monolith, high and exalted, encrusted with traditions. If the ‘Christ of faith’ represents the ‘first naivete’ and the ‘historical Jesus’ represents the ‘critical distance’ then how shall we describe ‘second naivete?’ In order to do so, it is crucial to shift our perspective on the either/or of the question to this: what is the relationship of the Jesus of faith to the Christ of history? Must we not begin with the presupposition that as bearers of God’s Spirit we already know the Lord Jesus? What we need to discern are the ways both the church and the academy have embellished the living Jesus with their Christologies.
Christological duality, which is and always has been, the big issue in both the church and the academy, need not be necessary if one moves the question to a position of ‘second naivete.’ But how can we justify such on both anthropological and theological grounds? You already know how I will answer this: by turning to Rene Girard and Karl Barth. These are the two significant twentieth century thinkers who moved beyond Platonic dualism to construct a Christology that is true to Jesus. One did it from an anthropological perspective, the other from a theological one. But both succeeded because they both began with the cross of Jesus.
The early Christians understood that this whole resurrection/life thing existed only because there was a crucifixion/death thing. The resurrection was a vindication of this death that was forgiving, and this life and ministry that was all about forgiveness. In the resurrection God does not retaliate, God forgives. This is the message of the early church. It encompasses the entire Jesus reality: Jesus as Spirit and Jesus’ story were woven of the same stuff.
We also must not forget that the perspective of the New Testament is ‘from below’, that is, it is written from the perspective of the persecuted. This is of strategic importance. All of the complaints that have been made against the Christian churches are derived from the fact that the very church which is grounded in the forgiveness of the Cross of Jesus, and whose texts are written from the perspective of the persecuted, does itself persecute and justifies persecution by an appeal to these texts. There is very little that is apostolic about the modern church.
<> <> <> <> <> <> <>
Before I turn to your question about Jesus’ hermeneutic, I must do so by way of reviewing the hermeneutic problem that exists in the modern American churches as well as modern theology. I can only state a very general thesis because I want to paint a big picture, whose details I can fill in if you have questions. Then I will really turn my attention to Jesus and Scripture. In so doing, I hope I will have expressed the answer to your question.
Throughout our conversations these past years, you and I have turned many questions on their head, looked at them from what we might call a ‘hermeneutic from below.’ Our general theme has examined the question, ‘what would the church look like if it looked like Jesus?’ This is a sociological concern we have had because we sense that a group of Christians, ‘a Christian society’, should, after all, look like Christ. And the problem is that it does, it looks like a Christology, but it doesn’t look like Jesus.
If we acknowledge that Jesus’ ministry was all about forgiveness and the extent of God’s mercy and love, then what happens when at the critical point, the point of the cross, we import the notion of God’s non-forgiveness or wrath. We completely ignore the explicit text “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” The consequence of this is that the seeds of mythology are sown in the gospel. And the text, which is ignored, that is, extruded or victimized, becomes transformed or sacralized. The theological expression for this is what is popularly known as the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This doctrine is a foil, to hide the truth, because it origins always stem from a lie. Whether the lie of romantic ‘individualism’ or the lie that the victim got what they deserved, one can inevitably trace back all arguments for this doctrine to the need to justify violence, the need for divine sanction when violent. We need a violent precedent on a cosmic scale to justify our sacrificial tendencies.
In the essay “The Biblical Testaments as a Marriage of Convenience” I laid out an essential framework for the problem as I conceive it. The issue was about what occurred when Christian theology and life began to become dualistic. What I observed is that there is a direct correlation between the use of Scripture and the theological scapegoating that began with Judaism and ended with paganism. This sacrificial hermeneutic is found only on the fringes of the apostolic canon. The apostolic canon reveals a non-sacrificial hermeneutic for the most part. The early church I am sure did its best when dealing with those she felt had crossed over the border. But once Marcion and Justin Martyr get the sacrificial ball rolling, it rolls all the way to Augustine who has heaved it down through history to our time.
The consequence of this is what I have called the Christian myth, the myth of the violence of God in Christ. No matter what form it takes, it is a sacrificial, and thus mythological, reading of the scriptures. The marks of myth will be evident in such a reading: justification for the killing of the victim and justice for God. This is one of the greater burdens of modern Christianity, the so-called penal theory of the atonement, which Anthony Bartlett has so well analyzed from the perspective of mimetic theory (Cross Purposes).
The alternative to this way of rendering Scripture I have termed gospel. It recognizes the impact Jesus’ life has when framing mimesis, particularly when it comes to discussing positive mimesis. The most direct consequence of this is that it develops a non-sacrificial reading of the text with extraordinary implications for theology as it is popularly constructed. This has been demonstrated time and again not only by Rene Girard but also by those who have applied mimetic theory to the gospels. Raymund Schwager has pioneered the way, along with Bob Hamerton-Kelly, Gil Bailie, Walter Wink and a host of others.
There is thus a manifest congruence between Jesus’ life as expressed in the Gospels and the application of that Life by the Spirit in the church. The early Christians died in the same manner, as had their Master, forgiving and non-retaliatory. They produced the letters and gospels of the Biblical canon. Can we ignore their choice for non-retribution or that of their Master, the Lord Jesus? Can we further ignore that their life with Jesus as Spirit and their recollections of Jesus as human were one and the same? Of course when we read the Gospels they will tell us as much about the early Christians as they do about Jesus. This is because the early Christians were all about Jesus! We don’t need to be rocket scientists to figure this one out.
All of our fretting and worrying over the ‘ipsissima vox/verba’ of Jesus’ teaching is just a reflection of our desire to get beyond the mythological ‘Christs of history.’ We shall come back to this in another place. We need to address the modern origins of the far more troublesome doctrine of Biblical infallibility.
The failure of the Reformers was that neither Luther nor Calvin was willing to rethink Augustine. Augustine was accepted as their ‘early Church’ authority because Augustine loomed large in Roman Catholic theology and still does. Augustine was the first thinker to bring together two words that heretofore had only been eschatologically united: civilization and Christian. Augustine’s attempt to conceive a Christian culture would mean the merging of Christianity and culture. But as all culture is mimetic and violent in nature, this resulted in the predominance of violent, mimetic Christianity. Thus the groundwork was laid for Augustinian thought in the assimilation of two kingdoms, the church and the state, the two Testaments, law and gospel, Christ and all the other gods. Augustine’s flattening of Holy Scripture undergirds the view of inspiration taught in both Catholic as well as Protestant churches. ‘The Bible is God’s holy Word.’ Christian Platonism with its ‘analogia entis’ (analogy of being) had thoroughly shifted the trajectory of the Christian gospel. It was now on a heading for Myth. And the Reformers did little to stop this (although I think Luther did a better job than Calvin did and only certain Anabaptist movements really succeeded).
<> <> <> <> <> <> <>
Protestants are in some senses justly proud of the achievements of the Reformers. But it is not enough to parrot their utterances. We must be bold to discern the gospel in our time. Let’s face it, Martin Luther opened a can of worms with his ‘sola scriptura’ principle. The ‘sola scriptura’ principal has part of its roots in the humanism of Erasmus and others. Because this is so, alongside the developing role of science in the 17th and 18th centuries as an authority on ‘reality’, the Protestant church also solidified its authority by appeal to the authority of Scripture. The heirs of the magisterial Reformers developed a view of the inspiration of Scripture that said, in its whole and in its parts, Scripture is truthful in what it asserts. Of course this was bound to clash with the growing authority of science particularly when scientific method began to be applied to the Bible.
By the 19th century, the tide began to turn. Theological science, or theology done in the name of science, had laid the framework to demonstrate that the two most important books to the church, Genesis and the Fourth Gospel, were neither accurate nor true. The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is almost immediately dismissed in critical research of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. From Remairus and Lessing to Strauss and Baur, the Fourth Gospel was sundered from Jesus’ life. The developments in biology and physics challenged the creation narrative of Genesis for rights of truth. The Protestant view of ‘biblical infallibility’ now had a two-fold front on the battlefield, with science, and of course with Rome’s assertion of papal infallibility. [re: the gospel of John please refer to "The Christian Challenge to Philosophy"]
Some Protestants at this time reconciled themselves to the reality that science was here to stay and surrendered the inaccuracies of Scripture to science. That is, they asserted that while the biblical text may not be accurate scientifically, it is true on a theological level. It was the time when ‘salvation history’ or ‘the history of the acts of God’ originated. Others were not content to surrender so quickly and asserted that not only was the theology of the Bible inspired but also every word that was written was inspired. This is the presupposition for the doctrine of inerrancy. Science had really won this battle by turning the conservatives and the liberals against one another. But both sides frequently ended up with a sacrificial reading of the gospel.
I will give you one example from either side. Evangelicalism is a good example of a mimetically conceived sacrificial theology from a conservative perspective. Liberation theology that of a liberal perspective. Both generally share in the mythologizing of the victim. Both are quite different in their outcomes, that is, different scapegoats are used, but both engage the justification of victimage, which is tantamount to mythologizing.
All the doctrine of biblical infallibility or inerrancy protects is the right to retribution. This is why it is necessary to the Christian myth and why some Christians will foam at the mouth when their beloved Bible comes under attack. This same way of thinking can also be found in other religious traditions, as you know. It is not unique to Christianity. And in every case it functions as part of the mythological covering of religious literature.
In the realm of sacrificial theology there are a thousand variations. They may be conservative or liberal, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, Reformed or Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal or Presbyterian, Anglican, feminist, post-structuralist or just about anything in between but they all have one thing in common: they all have a theory about the text that when applied to the text justifies their retributive stance against one another.
Fortunately, there are exceptions to the rule. Lots of exceptions. The alternative to the multitudinous (because mimetically duplicated) sacrificial ways of reading Scripture can be found in the singular way the gospel has been appropriated by those within and without the Christian tradition who like Jesus, renounced violence. How many examples do you need? It seems as though every age, place and generation has those who understand this. Yet, their voices are often not connected. This appreciation for the ‘theology and ethic of non-violence’ that Jesus propounds has often struggled with the ‘just God’ of the Christian Church. Others have been quick to renounce Jesus’ non-retributive ethic as a tool of the bourgeois designed to keep folks low on the ladder even lower. Either way it is thrown out as a piece of revelation and it is precisely the cornerstone they have cast out!
It is the non-retributive God that is being announced in Jesus’ life and message. It is what theology without violence looks like. In other words it is not the religious speculation of the generative scapegoating mechanism with its guilty victims and angry gods with bruised honors. This singular alternative, this perspective from below, this hermeneutic of peace, no matter what you call it, is a unique event in anthropological history. It is completely good news because the God of the gospel of Jesus is a good God demonstrated in his loving kindness, faithfulness and forgiveness to humanity.
We reach an impasse at this juncture if we insist on holding to a theory of biblical infallibility or inerrancy. It is the same conundrum that faced Marcion, viz., what do the ‘violent’ Creator god of the Hebrew Bible and the merciful God of the gospel have in common? There is no possible way to assert biblical infallibility and come to clear orthodox trinitarian thinking on this. One inevitably crashes on the shoals of the myth of the guilty victim. Either sinners are guilty, or Jesus is guilty, or the enemy is guilty or Satan is guilty or God is guilty, someone has to be blamed. Little wonder that Christians have often been perceived as polytheistic, they have been!
In their troubled appropriation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian churches have for the most part obliterated the revelatory character of the person of Jesus. Jesus has undergone assimilation into the heavenly Pantheon of deities over and over again. Fortunately he escapes those bounds and dwells in those whose lives are examples of his life. We can no more capture Jesus with our theologies than we can capture an elephant with a butterfly net. But we can bear witness to him.
Theology without violence does not need a ‘theory of Scripture’ to justify its assertions regarding the divine. It suffices that Scripture is testimony, in the same fundamental relationship to Jesus as was John the Baptist. Any authority it may possess is only possessed by virtue of him to whom witness is borne. This is the application of a theology of the cross to a view of the role of Holy Scripture. It does not ‘divinize’ or sacralize Scripture; it does not need to. When Scripture is testimony, it is received in its full anthropological sense; it is human witness that is being borne whether it is the testimony of humans or whether it is testimony about a human. The question, ‘If God were fully human, what would God look like?” is answered not only in the life of Jesus but also in his death which, as I mentioned earlier, must, like his life, be framed in terms of forgiveness and non-retaliation. We, like the apostles before us, are but witnesses to this.
<> <> <> <> <> <> <>
"Forgive one another as I forgive you" - Jesus
This business of witness is key when approaching Scripture. If we do not play the ‘blame’ game and sacralize the text, we are left standing before witnesses, those who saw, heard, touched, felt and experienced Jesus the man. Jesus, one might say, the true man, the new Adam, the corporate figure of the Son of Man, the hope for a transfigured humanity. This is how the apostolic witnesses looked upon Jesus. They did not sit around creatively playing with christological titles and crafting nifty theologies. Their entire life, their entire day to day existence was about bearing witness to the Risen Lord and the good news of the message of God’s grace. They were suffused with Jesus. If we do not approach their literary legacy with this in mind, we will never find our way out of the hermeneutic impasses and dead ends we see replicated all over Christianity.
How then should we approach the Scriptures? Who will be our guide? I have suggested that instead of a multitude of hermeneutic options available to the church (e.g., adjectival theologies or theologies in the genitive), there are really only two: i) that of myth, a sacrificial interpretation, and ii) that of gospel, the desacralizing of violent mimesis and the affirmation of loving mimesis. We are either following the prince of darkness on the road to hell, a hell of our own making, or we are following the Prince of Peace on the path of the Kingdom. Jesus is our guide.
We are freed and invited to follow the path of the apostolic witness. We do this by beginning where all Christian theology must begin, with the death of Jesus on a Roman cross and his subsequent resurrection from the dead. We begin with a theology of the cross. This is the theological way of speaking. Anthropologically speaking, we begin with the generative mimetic scapegoat mechanism. We have seen how Girard is able to demonstrate the effects of the gospel revelation on human reading of myth as well as the social and political effects of such. You know from Girard’s work, the role the passion of Jesus plays in the deconstruction of culture. In both cases or from either direction, we are bearing witness to the fact that Jesus died forgiving his enemies.
This forgiveness is given ‘salvation-historical’ rootedness by the apostle Paul. Unfortunately, we Western Christians assume Paul was referring to individually dispensed forgiveness for each one of us, for each one of our sins. No, for Paul, the forgiveness of God in the dying of Jesus was a real cosmic forgiveness. As a species, we are forgiven, in whole and in part. The message is: there will be no more scapegoats. The forgiveness of Jesus from the cross is the singular message that breaks the devil’s back. From that day forth, the generative scapegoating mechanism has a Conqueror in its midst. It is no longer able to take complete advantage over humanity. There is now light in the darkness. It is this cosmic thrust of forgiveness that is behind Paul’s proclamation of the gospel, most clearly evidenced in his mission to those beyond the Covenant of the Hebrew Bible.
The same is true for the four Gospels. You know the quip (I think it is K.L. Schmidt) that ‘the gospels are just passion narratives with extended introductions?’ This is not an unreal observation. Nor should it surprise us that the Passion narrative was more than likely the earliest developed narrative (as Theissen shows). Nor should we be further surprised to find that the ‘extended introduction’ of the gospels is all focused on the cross and that we are invited to follow Jesus and to carry a cross as he does. The specific hermeneutic of a theology of the cross is the implicit and explicit interpretive means we are given by the gospels themselves.
With this in mind, I want to turn my attention now to the use of Scripture by Jesus in the gospels. Can we discern any kind of a pattern in Jesus’ use of Scripture? Ask any Christian and they will tell you that Jesus quoted the Bible. By quoting it he validated its authority. By validating its authority, Jesus as ‘God’ validates the God of the Bible who in many ways is remarkably different from him. Go figure.
First I want to look at two texts that are used by some to assert that Jesus affirmed in whole the authority of the Hebrew Bible. Mark 12:35-40 where Jesus quotes Psalm 110 I have already dealt with in both Year B as well as “The Biblical Testaments as a Marriage of Convenience.” When Jesus quotes Psalm 110, he adds an aside ‘David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit declared..” Some see here a warrant for saying that the Hebrew Scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ (a la 2 Tim 3:16). But Jesus’ selective use of Psalm 110 as a hermeneutic alternative to militant notions of Messiah vitiates that interpretation. More than likely, this phrase is meant ironically as in “Your Bible says this and since you believe your Bible is inspired you must answer the question.” It has been shown that Jesus’ could be just as ironic as Socrates.
We have the same thing going on in John 10:34-39. Here Jesus, in describing his relationship to the Father, is about to be lynched. In this mob scene, Jesus is going to be publicly executed for violating ‘law’ that is, committing blasphemy. Jesus says, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods?’ (Psalm 82:6) If he called them ‘gods’ to whom the word of God came – and the Scripture cannot be broken – what about the one whom the Father set apart and sent into the world?” Once again the phrase “and Scripture cannot be broken” is used ironically. Not only can this be demonstrated within the larger Johannine use of irony but also in the fact that the law referred to has a possessive pronoun, it is “your Law.” In neither case do we need to see in the texts some kind of theory of inspiration; on the contrary, both texts give us a theory of non-inspiration. What do I mean by this?
When we looked at Mark 12 and Jesus’ use of Psalm 110, we saw that Jesus’ explicitly chose to refute the Hasmonean interpretation by not quoting Psalm 110: 2-3, 5-7. Jesus refused to perceive his mission in terms of a militant deliverer. Jesus explicitly rejected this ‘‘christology’ and it is something he does throughout the entire gospel tradition. Remember, even the disciples didn’t get it while he was alive, how much less the crowds or the authorities. But this use of Psalm 110 is indicative of a hermeneutic.
<> <> <> <> <> <> <>
This same hermeneutic can be found in Matthew 5 where Jesus contrasts his speech with that of Moses in the Torah. No matter how you slice it, Matthew 5:17-20 is not about abolition of Torah but about its fulfillment, a fulfillment seen in the ‘I say unto you’ portions. It is the rejection of religion and the affirmation of the spirituality (and sociology) of forgiveness and non-retribution. It is the rejection of a militant spirituality, just as Jesus’ use of Psalm 110 is a rejection of anti (= militant) Christology.
This can be further seen in Jesus’ use of Isaiah. We have greatly benefited from Bruce Chilton’s research on Jesus’ use of the Isaiah Targum. Unquestionably, Isaiah was Jesus’ favorite book, the lens through which he perceived his people’s history. In Luke 4 and in Luke 7 (as we see in Year C Epiphany), Jesus cites the Isaiah text and four out of four times (at a minimum) Jesus omits the continuing Isaianic theme of vengeance on the Gentiles. This is again of a piece with Jesus’ hermeneutic on demythologizing the ‘violent’ God.
In each case where Jesus cites Isaiah, it is always in the context of one way or another challenging his hearers to consider what God without retribution would look like. This similar principle can also be found In Jesus’ parables. In the parables, familiar eschatological imagery is given a turn on its head. For example, the kingdom is God is never conceived of as a reign of coercion, rather, God is like the father who cares not for his honor and RUNS to his estranged child. God’s reign is a place where sparrows are fed and lilies are clothed. Jesus’ parables are subversive by their very insistence that God is not like that which had been conceived.
Finally I must mention the oft-cited use of Psalm 22 in the passion narrative. Evangelicals tend to see a one to one correspondence between the events of Psalm 22 and the passion of Jesus. Psalm 22 is cited as fulfilled prophecy and becomes a witness, not to the passion of Jesus, but to a view of inspiration. And sadly, there it remains. Whether or not the use of Psalm 22 can be traced to the historical Jesus is an open question. Part of the reason for this openness is that scholars have a difficult time understanding how Jesus could have uttered such words, after all didn’t he have this great thing with God going on in the text previously. The Evangelical response is to say that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 because God had indeed abandoned him and was pouring out wrath upon him for our sins. That is mythologizing. Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 in the passion narrative is intended to call to mind the victimage process, the persecution of the innocent. It is the end of myth. Psalm 22 ends on a note of vindication just as Jesus knows his story will. He does not need to cite the whole text to make this point; the opening verse should bring the entire text to mind. But, if it is mythologized, then we ourselves are proof that had we been there we would have done the same things as Jesus’ persecutors. And the proof of that lies in those we scapegoat on a day to day basis.
Over and over again there is a consistent pattern in Jesus’ use of Scripture in the gospel tradition. It does not all have to go back to the historical Jesus and some of it undoubtedly comes from the good theologizing of the early church. But this early church did their theology in the presence of this Living Lord, so it is little wonder that there might be such congruency between his approach to Scripture and their approach. I think Jesus was far more of a ‘thinker’ than many give him credit for, I believe he was quite brilliant to be able to nurture such a vision of God.
What does this mean for us today in the churches that must still see the intimate connections between the two Testaments? Several things come to mind.
First, there must be a better understanding of Judaism in the churches. Far too much of what is taught and believed about Judaism in the churches is at best patently false and at worst, downright evil. When considering Scripture, e.g., Christians have a tendency to think Jews (and Jesus) viewed their Bible as a monolithic authority. Such was not the case, even for the Pharisees. It is essential to view Jesus in the midst of the many hermeneutic options available to him. The days of considering ancient Judaism as a unified religion are over. The time has come to recognize the diversity of thought that can be found in the literature and history of ancient Judaism, which includes various views of the biblical canon as well as a variety of ways of interpreting that canon.
Second, the church would do well to take its hermeneutic cue from Jesus and the apostles rather than inherited sacrificial theologies. I cannot emphasize this point enough. We will not recognize our sacrificial theology, hermeneutic and ethic if we do not take the time to ask if our reading of Scripture is consistent with that of Jesus and the prophetic and apostolic witness. We can only do this when we see that the essential component is the question: what does God without violence look like? The answer of course is that God looks a lot like Jesus. But this means we must reconsider the sacrificial mythmaking of our theologies and correct them.
Therefore, third, we as Christians must own up to our sacrificial theologies and our tendency to mythologize and we must repent. If indeed we confess that humans are ‘in sin’ then we better accept the fact that our hermeneutics will tend also ‘to sin.’ As my professor Bernard Ramm used to say, “God forgives our theology…just like he forgives our sin.” How do we recognize if we have a sacrificial theology? We look to see if the marks of victimage are present. Do we have a scapegoat? Do we justify ourselves? Do we lie? Do we create rivalries? Is our theology essentially dualistic? Do we sacralize the victim (and thus our violence)?
Fourth, the Protestant ‘sola scriptura’ principle without the controlling element of a theology of the cross will forever be a misplaced ideal. It will stand alone, defying interpreters to make sense out of its differentiation. It will be no more than a jigsaw puzzle without a box cover to give a clue as to what the end result looks like. Theology that does not begin and end as anthropology, with the humanity, death and resurrection of Jesus, will never be Christian theology. It will be more or less mythologized gospel. If we allow a theory of inspiration to control our hermeneutic, we will not be able to perceive the essential element that is the cornerstone of responsible Christian theology: the rejection of God in Christ on the cross by all humanity and the revelation of God’s forgiving spirit.
Fifth, with Girard and others we may recognize the travail of revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures, just as we can recognize it, e.g., in certain early Greek playwrights. What is being birthed is the revelation of the forgiving God. This birth culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the witnesses to his life that we call ‘gospel.’ As long as we insist on flattening out the biblical revelation with a theory of inspiration we will not be able to see the real character of God revealed in Jesus.
So you see, from my perspective, it is centrally important to readdress this issue of modern Christian hermeneutics from the perspective of mimetic theory. In so doing we also expose the underlying mythological (sacrificial) elements in our various doctrines, not the least of which is the doctrine of the authority, inspiration and interpretation of Scripture. I fear that the churches will not want to hear this. It will be far easier and more comfortable for them to remain in the la-la land of their first naivete. But I fear more for the world, for it is not hearing the good news of the gospel by those who claim to know Christ. I fear not that God will judge them, but that we will have missed so many opportunities to share the joyous message of liberation and peace that we have been given. Until and unless we re-examine this issue, we will remain in the vacuous sterility of our ignorance.
I hope I have answered your question about Jesus and his hermeneutic. I have chosen to keep my remarks brief and to refrain from all kinds of footnoting and debating of positions. At any point in this letter-essay I might have referenced one or more authors but I don’t think being pedantic will help here. Better clarity than obfuscation. If I have been unclear, it is because I too, am learning to repent, and know that my theology must also be forgiven.
Peace be with you.
* * * * * * * * * *
Image: Roberto Ferrari
The judgement of the cross
[Is the Gospel about the Penal-Substitutionary Atonement of God's Judgment upon Christ?]
by Michael Hardin
July 14, 2015
“Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31)
Christians are generally accustomed to speaking of the cross as the place and time where God enacted judgement on the world. But what does this actually mean, and what are its implications?
Usually, the cross as the place of judgement is understood to mean the physical location where God poured out his wrath upon Jesus. Here, wrath is understood as the punishment for our sin which God, in his justice, is obliged to mete out: namely death. And Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, gamely hangs on the cross in our place and bears the brunt of God’s implacable justice so that we, in spite of our sin, can escape punishment.
And the cross as the time of judgement is understood as the point in history when God sovereignly intervened in human affairs to solve humanity’s sin problem as described above.
So there we have it: time and place come together at the cross as Jesus bears God’s punishment for our sin. This, then, is the judgement of the cross: a resounding verdict of “Guilty!” pronounced upon the human race by God, accompanied by an unappealable death sentence. The twist is that Christ comes in as an innocent victim to serve the sentence in our place.
This is what I believed without a second thought for most of my Christian life. Until I began, through a process of reading and thinking, to see some gaping holes in it:
Hole number 1: In this view, God is not free to simply forgive sin; he is beholden to a higher principle of justice that must be obeyed. This is a major philosophical and theological problem, because if God is God, there clearly cannot be any higher principle than himself by which he is bound.
Hole number 2: Following on from hole number 1, since God is bound by a higher principle of justice that must be satisfied, the only way he can forgive us is through some kind of transaction. His end of the transaction is that someone has to die, since the wages of sin is death. Jesus agrees to be that someone, so God can now forgive us because his perfect son has died in our place, thus balancing the scales of justice. The problem here is that this is supposedly the same God who elsewhere in scripture instructs us to freely forgive others, even as we have been forgiven. So God requires a different standard of his children – free forgiveness – than he himself is prepared to meet. Hmm.
Hole number 3: This understanding makes God into a God who uses scapegoating to accomplish his purposes. In this view, Jesus is a God-ordained scapegoat. The groundbreaking work of French philosopher and anthropologist René Girard has shown that scapegoating is a uniquely human phenomenon that lies at the very foundation of human society. Scapegoating is an evil practice because it shifts blame for a community’s ills onto an innocent victim and then buries that victim so that life can go on as before. The innocent is made to pay the price for the guilty, so that the guilty can carry on unreformed. Do we really think the God who is supposedly the apex of love and compassion would endorse such a practice, let alone deliberately use it as a mechanism of justice?
Hole number 4: This view treats sin as a legal problem to be settled, an equation to be solved. In doing so, it shifts sin from the concrete to the abstract. Thus, the event of the cross does little or nothing to actually address the here-and-now reality of humanity’s sin; it merely promises a clean legal record to anyone who puts their faith in Jesus.
I could go on, but I think those holes are already quite large enough.
In this classic view, then, the outcome of the judgement that takes place at the cross is this: humanity is found deserving of death because God must actively mete out punishment to all sinners; and God is not averse to engaging in the evil practice of scapegoating in order to see Lady Justice satisfied. This judgement, I contend, is as much an indictment of God as it is of humanity. Both humanity and God are found wanting: humanity because of our sin and God because of his willingness – nay, his requirement – to deal out violent death in response.
How, then, are we to understand the judgement of the cross? If not sin as a universal abstraction, what exactly was being judged at the cross?
Let me first make a statement, which I will then try to unpack: the cross judges the world in that it proves that none of our violence or accusation was ever rooted in God.
Humanity’s number one problem is and always has been violence. Physical violence, verbal violence, mental violence. Violence expressed in war, in oppression, in racial hatred, in intolerance. Violence manifested in mistrust, suspicion, accusation and blame. We don’t mind talking about sin because it’s such an imprecise, abstract term that it’s easy to hide from its implications. But as soon as we talk about violence in its many and various expressions, we are all implicated.
So what has this to do with the judgement of the cross? Well, one of the main ways in which humanity has sought to justify its violence throughout history is by claiming it to be divinely sanctioned, or even divinely ordained. We can see this in various places throughout the Old Testament, and we can still see it in the world today. And if God, the ultimate authority, sanctions human violence, how can the cycle of violence ever be broken? Answer: it can’t, and so the world keeps on spinning ever faster along a trajectory of escalating violence. That way lies apocalyptic destruction.
What happened, then, at the cross? Far from revealing God to be the ultimate dispenser of violence, the cross showed that God would rather die than engage in violence of any kind.
The cross drew a sharp distinction between humanity and God. Humanity gravitates towards violence as the final solution for every problem, and is prepared to engage in scapegoating and lynching to preserve the status quo. God, on the other hand, eschews all forms of violence and, in going to the cross, exposes scapegoating as the structural evil that it is.
God is not judged and found wanting at the cross: on the contrary, he is decisively shown to be genuinely, truly, perfectly good and non-violent. What is judged is the world, the kosmos, civilisation and the wicked systems of violence and injustice that underpin it. And, most importantly, humankind’s favourite excuse for its violence – God told me to! – is forever obliterated.
I must draw this to a close before it turns into a ramble. But before I do, let me make one final point. I believe the cross was and is a judgement that has power to transform individual and collective life in the here and now, not simply to leave the status quo undisturbed pending a post-mortem deliverance. And how does it achieve such transformation? It does so by starkly revealing the problem of human violence and showing the only way in which the cycle of violence can be broken: free and unconditional forgiveness, first from God to humankind, and then from human to human.
As he goes to the cross, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”. And as he returns from the grave three days later, he announces not vengeance but peace. The cycle is broken.
As he goes to the cross, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”. And as he returns from the grave three days later, he announces not vengeance but peace. The cycle is broken.
The cross is a judgement, yes, but it is a judgement of light and life. The question is, are we prepared to see it that way, release our tight grip on violence and enter into the virtuous cycle of forgiveness and peace?