Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Why Did Jesus Die? or, Avoiding a Reduced Gospel

The previous post which argued that we ought to be able to affirm BOTH the new-creation-inaugurating aspect of Jesus' death AND the sin-atoning accomplishment of it leads me to a broader observation: sometimes those of us who speak about the value of Jesus' death on the cross tend to reduce the benefits of it to one or two areas while the Bible itself seems happily to move between many. While some of these benefits are overlapping, none of the following five are easily reduced to a single achievement: Because of the cross 1) the sinner's impurity is cleansed through a sacrifice (Heb.9:13-14), 2) Jesus pays a ransom for the debt that sin has created (Matt.6:12; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim.2:6), 3) Jesus conquers the power of sin, death, and the devil (Col.1:12-14, 2:14-15), 4) the personal hostility between God and the sinner is removed (Rom.5:10), 5) the legal judgment of sin was transferred from the human law-breaker to Jesus (Gal.3:13). While it may be true that the church sometimes makes the mistake of emphasizing some of these benefits while neglecting others, we should resist the temptation to respond to one kind of reductionism with another. Not just biblically, but even intuitively, would we not expect that the multiple manifestations of falleness from which creation suffers would all be reversed by the work of Christ (even if only in an inaugurated extent)? This is the long-awaited Savior of the whole sinful creation, afterall, and his arrival brings a restoration "far as the curse is found", not just to the curse as summarized by one family of biblical images of falleness. Broken bodies will one day be given resurrected bodies like his in which to experience a restored world, but also they will enjoy the forgiveness of a God they have offended, the cleansing from their shame, a victory over spiritual and temporal powers that used to enslave them, etc. To put this another way, when we spot the limitations of some theory of the cross, we should remember that a limitation is not necessarily an un-truth. Did the old "ransom theory" of the atonement have its problems? Yes, but this doesn't free us from somehow including the clear ransom metaphors used in the New Testament to complete our view of the atonement. Is N.T. Wright mistaken if he does not believe that the imputation of our sin for Christ's righteousness is a New Testament teaching? Yes, but that doesn't detract from the value of his work on the new creation themes surrounding Jesus' work which is manifestly biblical if we open our eyes to it. Christ announces a big gospel, good news all around, and not easily reduced. Our preaching, to stay scripturally balanced, should probably dance between all the New Testament portraits of what Jesus accomplished. A good example of the both/and approach to the cross (and the resurrection) can be seen in Michael Horton's responses to Frederica Mathewes-Green in The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives, pp.143-190).

Sunday, May 29, 2005

My One Tiny Problem with N.T. Wright

I just listened to three fantastic N.T. Wright lectures from a weekend seminar he gave recently in Oxford. His central claim was that the New Testament theme of God enacting a "new creation" is the most central biblical theme to explain what God is up to in redemptive history. Contrast this with the assumption of much of platonized Evangelicalism which says that God is primarily in the business of transporting individuals from this world to the ethereal heavenly realm, from the body to the realm of the spirit, etc. Jesus' resurrection is the inauguration of the new creation, God will one day renew the whole present cosmos from its groaning and fallenness in a like manner, that is, a manner that allows for great continuity between present world and the future new heavens and new earth. To speak this way is a cure for the dualism that makes the Bible into an instruction manual to get us out of this world and into a different realm of being, which is heaven.

As much as I love what Wright brings to the table, my lingering concern is what I seem to never hear him saying: the Bible, even given all of its new creation themes, also tells us that what allows anyone to experience the new creation is that Jesus has first atoned for his sins. I've always thought that the links between Jesus death and the Passover provide a strong reason to see atonement near the heart of Jesus' mission. Granted, the atonement for our sins is more of a means to an end (a restored friendhship with God) than a final redemptive benefit in itself. Wright mentions the Passover context of Jesus' death, but relies instead the allusions that the original Exodus Passover would have made to an act of divine re-creation, specifically, that the typical image of God conquering a watery chaos to bring forth a new creation is what the Red Sea crossing and birth of his covenant people is all about. Wright's evidence is strong that the Red Sea crossing of the Exodus is thick with new creation motifs (which I never saw before, apart from Israel in the desert as a new Adam), but why not affirm this AS WELL AS the atonement motif? After all, the only people who experienced the "new creation" of the Red Sea crossing were those whose lives were saved by the lamb's blood on the doorpost the night before. Can't we admit to both the substituionary atonement and new creation as important motifs? The first describes the entrance mechanism and the second, the nature of the kingdom itself, but both are important. To emphasize God's new creation without dealing with the atonement seems to underappreciate Chist's office as priest (even while doing a good job with his kingly office). In fairness, Wright may not really deny any of this. He is, after all, trying to draw our attention to certain biblical themes that we have often missed (new creation) rather than to articulate an exhaustive system. But still, something in me wishes that I'd hear a few more bones occassionaly tossed to the substitutionary atonement motif that seems so central to the Old and New Testament way of describing how it is possible for a sinner to get right with God. To be sure, thanks to Wright, we will not forget that a forgiven sinner will experience God's full redemption in a renewed body, in a renewed cosmos, not somewhere up in the ether.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Molinism and Acts 13:48

Molinism (after the Jesuit Louis de Molina, 1535-1600) suggests that God only contingently knows the future free choices of human beings, such as a person's decision to put his faith in Christ. The contingency is whether or not the person does, actually, come to such a belief, for before such a decision is made, it does not exist in a way that can be known. This means that God does not logically know the outcome of free choices until they are actually made (though temporally, he would know the decision before it takes place). So while temporally God may know what a person's future free choice will be, he knows it only on the basis of what he forsees their future decision to be.

A prima facie read of certain Bible verses seem to challenge such a view, however. For examle, Acts 13:48, "When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed." A natural interpretation of this verse suggests that God had first appointed these Gentiles to become believers, only after which (and because of which) they did come to believe upon hearing Paul's message. They were first appointed to believe (by God, presumably -- who else?) and only later did actually believe. "Appoint" is quite an active verb, so it appears that God has done something more with regard to these Gentiles than merely know of their future freely chosen faith.

A Molinist must, it seems to me, disagree with something in such an interpretation of Acts 13:48. And, of course, often we must correct our prima facie readings of a particular text. Other scriptures themselves may sway us, or, perhaps we realize our first view has internal inconsistencies, etc. So here's my concern about Molinism: what would possibly lead me to abandon my prima facie reading of Acts 13:48 in favor of a Molinistic solution that would, somehow, deny that God actively appointed these Gentiles to believe? It seems that Molinists are generally motivated by a philosophical contradiction they perceive between saying a given event is both determined by God and also determined by a human being. Is that concern legitimate enough to pry us loose from the natural reading here?

I don't think so. A simple affirmation that God pre-appoints certain uncoerced human choices is not necessarily a philosophical contradiction. The Bible's mention in Acts 13:48 that God appointed Gentiles to believe is "simple" in that it doesn't tell us anything about the mechanisms of agency in either the divine or human will. Admittedly, we would be guilty of a philosophical contradiction if we said that God freely determined the outcome of that event in a simultaneous and exactly similar way that free Gentile wills determined it. But no one is making that claim (that I know of). The Bible does not say how God can determine an event that is also freely chosen by a human, it just says he does, without indulging us in the details. But someone might respond, "Knowing the details wouldn't change anything, since even what it said is a contradiction." But this is only the case if God's agency operates enough like human agency that there isn't room for both to act freely to produce the same event. Granted this would be impossible if talking about two humans (I can't predetermine that my wife will eat pizza with me tonight and then claim she has an equally free choice whether to eat it or not). Isn't it quite possible, then, that God knows something we don't about divine agency that makes it different than ours? Why opt for a philophical solution like Molinism that forces us to nearly deny the face value of a text like Acts 13:48, not to mention that necessarily rests on determinations about the mechanics of divine causality that do not seem to be revealed to us? The alternative is to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt about what is possible within God's mysterious ways.

These are just some opening thoughts, mostly to myself.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Christian Philosophers and Divine Agency

My philospher friend Mark Case (Ph.D. Cornell) and I had a short discusssion the other day about the nature of free-will. Apparently, the majority of Christian philosophers, following Alvin Plantinga, tend to think that human free-will is not compatible with the kind of determinism that states that if one could know everything about the universe, then one could predict any future event. But where would this leave the likes of Jonathan Edwards and his position on free will? Edwards seemed to say that God does have such perfect knowledge, but that humans still do, in fact, have a kind of free-will in the sense that they can always choose in favor of their preferences. Is this just too shallow a sense of free-will to deserve the name, according to Plantinga, et. al.? In a somewhat related observation, my nagging sense has been than we don't know enough about the nature of divine agency to state, philosophically, that God can't determine a human decision without violating all senses of free-agency in the human chooser. Isn't it conceivable that God could act on an object (like a human will) in a way unlike ways that we would (such as coercion, brainwashing, etc.) and thereby allow that God can foreordain (in God's way) a human choice that nonetheless allows that choice to still be called "free"? Isn't it a potential err to make quick analogies between zero-sum events of agency in the world of our normal experience with what need not be zero-sum events when we're dealing with an agent like God who gets his work done God-knows-how? I need to think more about this (and my later post on Molinism goes deeper into this issue).

Tuesday, April 12, 2005