A Changing Religion: The Merger of Church and State

This has been lifted from a Facebook post by Bob Grayson. When the church was offered the “keys” to the Roman state in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, little did the early church fathers realize what was really happening is that they were offering the keys to the church instead. In effect, the spiritual “principalities and powers” that Paul mentions became intertwined with the very fabric of Christendom.

“A Changing Religion

 Much of what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. As long as Jesus’ followers were on the bottom and the edge of empire, as long as they shared the rejected and betrayed status of Jesus, they could grasp his teaching more readily. Values like non participation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies could be more easily understood when Christians were gathering secretly in the catacombs, when their faith was untouched by empire, rationalization, and compromise.

Several writings illustrate this early commitment to Jesus’ teachings on simplicity and generosity. For example, the Didache, compiled around 90 CE, says: “Share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!” [1]

The last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ended in 311 CE. In 313, Constantine (c. 272-337) legalized Christianity. It became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. After this structural change, Christianity increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning money and war. Morality became individualized and largely focused on sexuality. The church slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point. Texts written in the hundred years preceding 313 show it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army, as the army was killing Christians. By the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and they were now killing the “pagans.”

Before 313, the church was on the bottom of society, which is the privileged vantage point for understanding the liberating power of Gospel for both the individual and for society. Within the space of a few decades, the church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas. The Roman basilicas were large buildings for court and other public assembly, and they became Christian worship spaces.

When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed. In a sense, Christianity almost became a different religion!

The failing Roman Empire needed an emperor, and Jesus was used to fill the power gap. In effect, we Christians took Jesus out of the Trinity and made him into God on a throne. An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus’ teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible. Relationship—the shape of God as Trinity—was no longer as important. Christianity’s view of God changed: the Father became angry and distant, Jesus was reduced to an organizing principle, and for all practical and dynamic purposes, the Holy Spirit was forgotten.”

— Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48-51; and

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 100.

 [1] Didache 4:8. See Tony Jones, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community (Paraclete Press: 2009), 23. More about the Didache is available at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html.

The Pope, Jeffress and the Death Penalty

“Many times when I stress Jesus clear teaching on loving enemies and non-violence, someone will say, “But what about the Old Testament where God commanded violence?” Particularly people have brought up King David who was called “a man after God’s own heart” and yet participated in much violence against enemies. To that I want to say that we are called Christians, not Davidians. We follow Jesus, not David. It always baffles me when Christians treat the Captain of our faith so trivially and easily dismiss him in favor of Old Testament texts. Do we not believe that God himself came into history? Is it insignificant or does it change everything? How much do we actually “believe in Jesus”? 

But another thing I want to point out is a little passage in 1 Chronicles where David summoned all the officials of Israel for an assembly in Jerusalem including “all the officers over the tribes, the commanders of the divisions in the service of the king, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, and the officials in charge of all the property and livestock belonging to the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty men and all the brave warriors.” This is what he said:

“Listen to me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it. But God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a man of war and have shed blood.'” (1 Chronicles 28:1-3)

Wait a second, didn’t God command all the bloodshed and violence? Does this not bring that into question? What a shocking and historical statement to make to the entire military of Israel. The “man after God’s own heart” was denied his desire to build God a temple because he was a “man of war” and had shed blood. Perhaps King David was such a man after God’s own heart that even in his time, when violence was seen as the divine way, he was ahead of his time in beginning to see God’s true heart on this matter. This is an Old Testament foreshadow of what was clearly revealed in Christ, and the true hope of God’s kingdom and the building of his temple (us).”

— Jacob M. Wright

What I think we have here is an example of the ancient practice of claiming God is on your side to justify violence, and then David’s growing realization that killing another human could not possibly be a loving God’s desire. A recent example of this was the Pope’s condemnation of capitol punishment as being counter to the teachings of Christ. A telling rebuff was President Trump’s evangelical advisory panel member, Robert Jeffress: 

“When an individual takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘murder.’ When the government takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘justice.'” …“I’m sure Pope Francis is a good man who is sincere in his belief. But the Pope is sincerely wrong on this. Popes, pastors, and churches may change their opinions, but God’s Word never changes. ‘Forever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven’ (Psalm 119:89).” *

It is here we can clearly see the problem inherent to evangelical theology… “God’s Word never changes.” The assumption is that there is no progression of thought about God and ethics in scripture, and that the Bible sprung fully formed from God’s mind like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. It totally discounts the humanity of scripture, and in practice places cherry-picked violent passages as more authoritative than Jesus’ own teachings. It is a slippery slope that has historically allowed the church to justify very un-Christlike behaviors. Like King David of old, evangelicals end up creating a god in their own image. A god that satisfies their own violent and selfish appetites for revenge. Rather than allowing scripture to show progress in understanding God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, it is forced into a theological box of man’s own creation.

The ironic thing about treating scripture in this manner, is, that despite the claim that they are “honoring” scripture in this way, a finished, inerrant, propositional scripture allows quite a bit of wiggle room and unethical behavior. It is quite easily twisted, as it has been reformed in man’s own understanding of how a propositional rule book would look.

I have quite a few run ins with both atheists and fundamentalist Christians over the violence in scripture. As a progressive I get hit from both sides. Atheists almost universally seem to understand the Bible as fundamentalists do, inerrant and spoken by God. It is a straw man argument that they can easily attack. My dear evangelical brethren, on the other hand, insist on defending scripture as accurately depicting God’s violence (justice). Both sides feel this is the only way to interpret scripture: literally, and neither will admit to their presuppositions. …Very frustrating.

The truth of the matter is that scripture is the word of God, small letter “w.” As John tells us, Jesus is the Word of God, big letter “W.” This worshipping of the Bible creates a false idol of something that should be cherished but subservient to Jesus, not lord over him. Let’s get our priorities straight.

* http://www.firstdallas.org/news/pastor-robert-jeffress-pope-is-dead-wrong-about-capital-punishment/

The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Rome

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of the church over the centuries has been related to how the church is to manifest the Kingdom of God in society. One of the main purposes of my blog and indeed, why, a half dozen years ago I decided to “deconstruct” my evangelical assumptions, can be summed up in a desire to better manifest the Kingdom of God. The gospel message is about the Kingdom of God and not, as in evangelicalism, about what you must do to avoid hell and “go to heaven when you die.”

When Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was the “king of the Jews,” his reply of “my kingdom is not of this world,” seems to have never fully registered with his followers in the centuries that followed. Looking at the social milieu in the first century we see a Palestine under Roman control. Israel has faced a number of centuries being conquered and reconquered by foreign powers. In other words, a theocratic state conquered and ruled by secular states. In order to survive and maintain some degree of power, the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Pharisees compromised with the Roman government. In doing so, they took on the methods of Rome: quest for power, control, wealth, in other words, their own self-interests. The common person was largely left out of the equation and reaped little benefit form the merger of church and state. In fact, they suffered because of it. 

In a blatant rebuff of an earthly theocratic rulership, Jesus declares the Kingdom of God is not “of this world.” This is something he conveyed over and over in his parables and is the central theme of the Sermon on the Mount: the Kingdom of God is not like early kingdoms. It is worth pondering for a moment. If God’s Kingdom is not of this world, was a theocratic state, i.e., Israel, ever really a “final plan” of God’s, or was it a misunderstanding, a tribalistic anachronism of Moses and Aaron’s? Certainly, the tribalistic, warrior God of early Israel seems at odds with the Heavenly Father Jesus portrays.

In large part, Jesus’ clashes with the religious leadership was over collusion. When religion merges with the state, it is religion that suffers or is diminished. So how is it that the Kingdom of God is to flourish among men (and women)? The key to understanding is scattered throughout his teaching via parable. Parables were a popular teaching method in the first century and allowed Jesus to be subversive to the Jewish leadership in a way that the common folk could understand and agree with, but not give legal reason for his arrest. It bought him time to get his message out before his inevitable arrest and murder by the state.

Jesus knew, no doubt, that his “good news” was good news to the poor, the sick, those rejected by the religious powers, but would be a threat to those who colluded with Rome. The growth and distribution of the Kingdom of God was not to follow an earthly blueprint. Like a tiny mustard seed it would start small and eventually snowball into something huge. But not by coercion or manipulation. Not by putting the Ten Commandments back in courtrooms, not by putting Bibles in classrooms, not by having compulsory prayer in our schools, not by passing legislation to deny women, minorities and foreigners equal rights, but by the selflessness of people sharing the love of God to others. For almost 300 years this was the paradigm of the early church, in stark contrast to the Jewish-Roman collusion, which did not end well for the Jews.

But, then, in the early 4th century, the emperor Constantine, a ruthless violent man, “converted,” i.e., saw the advantage of merging the growing Christian church with his secular power regime. The early church fathers, tired of the relentless persecution, did exactly what the Jews had done in the first century, they colluded with the enemy of the Kingdom of God. To some, this was seen as a godsend, the opportunity to spread the gospel unhindered by persecution. In retrospect it allowed a perverted and unhealthy church to grow in power, wealth and influence. In time holding the “keys to the Kingdom” meant the religious controlling majority could not only declare heresy, or anathematize “false teachers,” but arrest and execute those who did not toe the line.

History had repeated itself. The lesson that collusion with the state does not end well, as with the Jews, was a lesson not learned. The entire Middle Ages was squandered by the Church of Rome consolidating its stranglehold on Europe. And again, with the Reformation and it’s break with Catholicism, the same mistake of collusion was made. Some finer points of theology had shifted but the Reformers policies were straight out of the Catholic playbook.

Fast forward to the 18th century. Christianity in Europe had become, state religions. Dying institutions propped up by the secular governments as a way of morally legitimizing their harsh governments. Ah, the great American democratic experiment. Unfortunately, again a major misunderstanding of how the Kingdom of God operates. The cries of religious freedom were then, as they are now, primarily not about freedom for all, but freedom to practice particular forms of religion at the exclusion of others. Slavery, the seizure of tribal lands and subsequent displacement of First Nation peoples and the various persecutions of Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Mormons, etc., all an outgrowth of a nation who fancied herself, “Christian.” Yep, collusion again.

Someone once said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again, expecting a different result. This is what the American church is guilty of, colluding with the state and eventually expecting it to result in the Kingdom of God. The evangelical church over a two century period, enjoyed a tremendous growth, not only in numbers, but in power and prestige. It identified completely with the nationalist interests of the American government. The government, as conceived by the fathers of our nation, became an object of worship, in its romanticized form by the conservative church.

Any hint of change to the chummy relationship the church had developed with civil government was seen as an attack on “Christian values.” This is the tragedy of Trump Christianity: the Right has so thoroughly mixed partisan right wing conservatism with Christian ideals, that the Gospel of the Kingdom has been pushed out. Now, with the major shift in American ideology away from conservatism and towards equal rights  and inclusivity, the Religious Right is majorly threatened. It would mean the death of “church as usual.”

This is an observation I made a few posts back, that society is advancing morally faster than the Religious Right is. Society as a whole, is acting more Christlike than the church. The goal or methodology of the church, in its endeavor to bring the Kingdom to earth, is not to impose legal sanctions and laws against what it determines to be “sin,” but to simply love others, regardless, and seek justice, mercy and grace for all mankind. This is not meek pacifism, but a call to action. Actions that will have an effect on society for the better.

God Asks Jesus into His Heart

“God repents of Old Testament days, asks Jesus into his heart”

“It’s reported that God, who has been known to go by Jehovah, has recently decided to follow Jesus. God recently released a statement that sending his Son into the world made him rethink some of the old ways he use to deal with people. “Perhaps wrathfully raining down fire on cities and drowning millions of people wasn’t the best or most Christlike way to go about things,” God reportedly said. God especially felt bad about commanding his people to commit wholesale genocide against the Canaanites and the Amalekites, including their women, children, babies, and pets. “I’d rather not talk about that stuff. It’s in my past. I was still new at this whole human race thing. As God, I’ve decided to give a Christlike example for my creatures to look up to. Jesus has taught me a lot.”

After hearing Jesus teach against wrath and hate, and commanding people to love their enemies and be peacemakers because this is what their Heavenly Father is like, God said that Jesus’ words really had an impact on him and made him think. “I really liked the way Jesus portrayed me. I think I can live up to that,” said God. “When my Son even forgave his own murderers, that kind of sealed the deal for me. It’s really had a powerful affect on people’s lives too. I want to be more like Jesus.” 

God said that since becoming a disciple of Jesus, he no longer plans to torture the majority of mankind forever in fire, and is taking a new course of direction. “A different approach to this whole thing is really needed,” God said. God promises that his change of heart is real, and that he promises to practice the fruit of the Spirit in the future.”

Jacob M. Wright*

This post from Jacob Wright appeared on Facebook. Although tongue in cheek, it expresses a very real problem with church doctrine, post-reformation, and especially in American theology’s Puritan roots: the Jonathan Edwards “sinners in the hands of an angry God” approach so common in much of today’s evangelical theology. Numerous assumptions have been made historically in Western Theology, that have more in common with Medieval views of justice and administration of laws than the Heavenly Father Jesus introduces us to in the Gospels. Instead, with post-Reformation teachers and theologians like John Piper, God’s actions are assumed to be just, even when they seem immoral.

Evangelicalism seems at times, unaware of the contradiction of the ancient Hebrew understanding of natural disasters, plagues and a Yahweh who was their tribal warrior god, and the Heavenly Father Jesus introduces us to. In fact, some evangelicals have attempted to interpret current events as God’s anger with mankind, hence hurricanes to punish America for “the sins of homosexuality,” or for America just being to darn liberal in general. It is interesting to see how this plays out in social media, as conservatives will claim that when calamity befalls those they see as outside the fold, it is God’s judgement. On the other hand, when bad things happens to them, it is either a trial to bring forth spiritual growth, or it’s the result of general wickedness from those outside the fold. It’s a primitive and self-serving technique that, not surprisingly, always puts them on the right side of things. On a side note, is Trump God’s “anointed one” or, conversely God’s punishment on a hypocritical conservative Christianity? Depends a lot on one’s point of view!

In large part, this is the result of refusing to admit the ancient understanding of God was different than Jesus’ understanding of God. The assumption being that Jesus accepted the writings of the Law and Prophets uncritically. This is simply not true. The Jewish understanding of God by the first century had evolved quite a bit since the early days of human sacrifice and a methodology of questioning scripture, its meaning and application had arisen called Midrash, a Jewish scholarly commentary that by the second century was annotating the the Biblical texts. Although conservatives oft quote Jesus’ saying he came to “fulfill the Law,” (the Greek means to complete, to perfect (telios), and therefore he unquestioningly accepted the Bible as true, it is a bit more complex than that. It is more accurate to think of Jesus as explaining the Bible than vis-versa. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” John 5:38-40. Note, it is not the scriptures themselves that give eternal (aeon) life, but belief in Christ himself. This is a profound statement coming from a Jew raised in a culture that taught that observance of the Law as presented in the Tanakh and Masoretic Text was a corporate responsibility tied not to an individual savior, but to the writings themselves.

And here is where conservative Christians oft get in trouble. They don’t seem to realize where Christ aligns with Judaism and where he, for good reason, deviates from it. And how that affects his understanding and application of scripture. Numerous times he (and other NT writers) simply ignore the original intent of a Biblical passage when a literal approach would obscure the love of God or a broader theme. Matthew 5 is a good example of this. The main reason for this in the relatively recent systematic theologies, is that they rely on an inerrant text. Because of this presupposition Jesus MUST accept the OT scriptures uncritically or the whole systematic house of cards falls apart.

The problem with removing God from moral responsibility, is that it gives us a capricious God, and the admonition to be holy as God is Holy becomes meaningless. The moral compass is destroyed. John Piper’s God, for example, tells us to do as he says, not as he does. This is not leading by example (Christ’s example is also destroyed in this scenario), but is leading by threat of punishment. We are not allowed to ask “why,” but are simply told “because I say so.” Without a moral compass in the very nature of God himself, we are reduced to rote legalism: following laws for the sake of the rules themselves. This is why Jesus is our example, not scripture itself. Scripture presents us with varied understandings of God, while Jesus presents us with a unified witness to what God the Father is like. He is like Jesus, not Zeus.

But this is exactly not what the standard evangelical teaching of scriptures gives us. History has born witness to the atrocities of the church when it assumes God’s “wrath” is something to appropriate for itself to further the Kingdom of God. 

As I have pointed out elsewhere, the sometimes violent, always coercive God goes back before the Reformation, to the 4th and 5th centuries when the church aligned itself with the state. The threat of eternal punishment and being declared anathema was a fearful threat the church could effectively use to manipulate a largely illiterate body of believers. If that didn’t work, church sponsored murder or torture would. 

Does any of this look like Jesus? I don’t think so. It is time to put down the false allegiances we have and worship the God Jesus introduces us too.

*Jacob Wright is in process of turning many of his Facebook posts into a book. His GoFundMe page is here: https://www.gofundme.com/jacobwright

Porn and the Law of Love

Last week I got embroiled in a discussion on Patheos, that an evangelical Lutheran (ELCA) had written, concerning the growing belief among Americans that pornography was morally acceptable (43%). Among his findings was that Democrats are “strongly pro-porn” (53%), while Republicans, God bless ‘em, are only 27% approving. As well as the 22% of people for whom religion is “very important” who also find pornography morally acceptable. (1) Lutherans, as a whole, are a fairly diverse group, ranging from fundamentalist to liberal in their views. This particular author was pretty moderate and evangelical.

But while I shared his concern that the growing acceptance of pornography is not a positive sign, I found the overall take away from his article unpersuasive. It seemed to me to be more of the same evangelical hand wringing over sexual impurities, while the vast majority of white evangelicals seem to ignore more important social injustices. I tend to think it is far easier to point out what’s wrong with people’s sex lives than to take personal responsibility for injustices in our society. And the irony of evangelicals pointing out the evils of pornography in light of the Stormy Daniels/Donald Trump affair underscores the hypocrisy of the whole thing.

What I found particularly confusing was the way he jumped back and forth between the Law of scripture and the gospel:

“But God’s moral standards are objective and absolute, and we will be judged by them.  The only cure for a seared conscience is a strong, undiluted, 100 proof, dose of God’s Law.  If that can burn through the seared conscience and break through the hardness of the heart, so can the Gospel.” (2)

He seemed to be saying the Law (God’s moral standards) and the Gospel were one in the same. I took exception to this and sought clarification. What followed ended up muddying the water further and I was finally accused of being antinomian, rejecting the Law. Accusing non evangelicals of heresy seems to be a popular trend lately, the marcionite accusation leveled at popular preacher Andy Stanley is a good example.

What I think evangelicals miss in their understanding and explanation of God’s moral law and the gospel is that the gospel is not primarily a legal transaction. It is a love transaction. While the Decalogue and the Laws of Moses do indeed spell out some particulars, both Jesus and the apostle Paul anchor God’s attitude towards us, and our response to him, as one of love. As I tried to explain, the Law as legal contract, does not go far enough and is helpless to change us. So a “100 proof, dose of God’s Law” will not change our hearts. It is the love of God, administered by the Holy Spirit that brings change. This is technically known as sanctification.

Every time I bring this up with evangelicals, they get upset. Having clear cut rules seems very important to them. And it is about the rules, and keeping them, and more importantly, pointing out when others are not keeping them. And again, one of the reasons conservatives are so adamant about legalism, is that it is far easier than practicing love. It is black and white, clear cut. You’re either sinning or your not. It is why ultra conservative evangelicals like the Southern Baptists can be so legalistic while withholding love from people of color, women and gays. Godly love is far messier. It requires love of even our enemies. Love the LGBTQ community, check. Love foreigners among us, check. Love people of color, check. Love refugees, check. Love their children, check.

True, cruciform love is far more demanding than a list of sins can ever be, and that is why Jesus and Paul put such an emphasis on it. It is why Jesus broke with Sabbath tradition and came in conflict with the keepers of the Law. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” tells us all we need to know about keeping the Law of Moses…it’s not enough.

But my main concern with Dr. Veith’s article was that it was impractical. Evangelicals can no longer claim moral high ground in society. People want to see your faith in action. Moral platitudes are worthless if not backed by those who “walk the walk.” Society is no longer motivated by threats of hell and damnation. Sin, as breaking what many see as anachronistic sexual mores, carries little weight. The conservative church is giving answers to questions society is no longer asking, nor cares about. Unconditional, extravagant Godly love, though…that would be a game changer for the church and society. It is odd that so many evangelicals I talk to find that objectionable. After all, wasn’t that the summation that Jesus gave to the Law in the first place? “Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself?”

“Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”

― Thomas Merton

Gallop Poll

Patheos Blog Post

Andy Stanley and Our Problem with the Old Testament

Wesley Hill’s Post

Andy Stanley

Wesley Hill’s response to Andy Stanley’s sermon about “unhitching ourselves from the OT” is emblematic of a larger, systemic and long standing problem in the church. In order to understand the nature of the problem, one needs to be able to step back from the historical investment the church has placed in the OT canon, and try to look at church history more objectively. The problem, as I will describe, is not uniquely evangelical, but has marred the church’s understanding of Christ’s teaching for over 2 millennia. I apologize for perhaps over estimating the evangelical responsibility in the matter.

What Andy Stanley, in this sermon has done, is attempt to bring to our attention a certain problem within the church, that has historically hindered the church from truly grasping the nature of the Heavenly Father that Jesus introduces us to. Wesley Hill’s response that the various councils, the church Fathers, the Anglican Church, etc., have all revered the Decalogue is true. He is stating the obvious. But when you understand that the Decalogue is symbolic of and integral to the Jewish covenant alone, as Christians we must be careful how we appropriate it for ourselves.

Stanley has used the Ten Commandments as a sort of code word for the church’s attitude towards the OT as a whole. Marcion was not the only Christian leader to be troubled by the apparent dichotomy between the OT Jewish understanding of God and the new revelation of God’s character presented in Jesus’ teaching and in Paul’s theology. Origen and others in the early church tended to smooth over the difference by the use of allegory, that the Bible had spiritual meanings that superseded the literal meanings of the text. Unfortunately, the grace and unmerited forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ has been muddied by a literal appropriation of much of the legalism of the OT.

For Augustine of Hippo, AD 354-430, there was a “veil” over the OT. One had to get past it to understand the spiritual sense of the passages, even the more scurrilous ones. As a Manichaean, Augustine had spurned the OT scriptures as rather crass and uninspired, but with the influence of Ambrose, and his subsequent re-conversion to Christianity, he changed his mind. It is important to note that, like Origen, Augustine and other church Fathers were not unaware of the ethical problems inherent to the OT. They dealt with the tension by spiritualizing the passages. 

With the collapse of the Roman Empire and increasing pressure from Islam, the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity grew further apart, until Catholicism, the Western branch, became dominant. During the Middle Ages, survival of the church relied on support from various monarchs, and the success of the monarchies relied, in part, on the approval of the Pope. While there were various reforms, and good Popes, there was a growing unhealthy symbiotic relationship between the secular state and the church. While technically not a theocracy, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate between the secular and the divine.

The state’s use of violence, war and coercion had a parallel in the OT, and the church’s collusion with the state implicated the church increasingly with that same coercive, violent mindset. Abandoning the more allegorical interpretive understanding of the OT, treating the enemies of the church violently became a way of treating heresy, following the similar pattern of ancient Israel.

The die was cast. According to the Catholic Catechism, the church was the new Israel. Protestantism had similar parallels. As a result, what we have seen historically in the church, is a gradual departure from the Sermon on the Mount as descriptive of the Kingdom of God, to a church that uses much of the same playbook as earthly kingdoms do. Ask any atheist about the church’s ethical shortcomings. We ignore the past to our own peril.

Frankly, I am a bit shocked that a scholar such as Wesley Hill does not seem to understand, that for Paul the Law leads to death and failure. That you can never have enough laws, nor follow enough laws to merit favor. Stanley’s point that we do not “need” the Ten Commandments as Christians, while certainly controversial, is, at root, true. We have something better, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the example of Christ and the teaching of the apostles. The Decalogue is so incredibly obvious, why should we need it as a reminder? Does anyone here need to be reminded that murder, lying or sleeping with the neighbor’s wife is a bad thing?

Instead the author of John and the apostle Paul, repeatedly remind us to LOVE others. Why? Because it is far harder than keeping the Law of Moses. The Pharisees kept the Law fastidiously yet failed being loving. This is the draw of legalism. It lets you off the hook in the love department. This is why the church, in its efforts to keep doctrinal, legalistic purity, could burn people at the stake, or torture them to get them to convert. In their perversion of love, they saw it as a way of saving souls.

While we no longer burn people at the stake for heresy, witchcraft or being Gay (except in Africa), the same obsession with legalism and doctrinal purity ostracizes people and turns people away from Christ. It is the old “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra that fails so miserably. Like Paul in Romans 2, people instantly know hypocrisy when they hear it.

While Origen and Augustine may have understood the OT in allegorical terms or spiritualized difficult passages, today’s evangelical is not so sure. With the rise of the Princeton School of Theology and the pushback on Christian liberalism and the historical critical method, inerrancy and literal interpretation has become the defecto evangelical methodology of understanding scripture. In effect, it mires scripture down to the understanding of scholastics like Aquinas and legalists like Calvin. Unintended side affects are a gospel that is irrelevant today and a rigid doctrinal system that cannot be reformed. It cannot be reformed because in the declaration of an inerrant scripture, the defender becomes inerrant himself. Check out Roger E. Olson, “Reformed and Always Reforming, The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology,” for more on this matter.

The danger with understanding scripture this way concerns us most when coming to the OT. While the Decalogue is certainly a wonderful document, Christian appropriation of certain Levitical laws generally ends up backfiring by creating legalistic Christians. Instead of manifesting God’s love and forgiveness, they become harsh and judgmental. This, of course, can happen when using the NT as well. I think Wesley Hill’s comment are illuminating:

It is striking how frequently flirtations with Marcionism are aimed at revising Christian teaching on sexual morality. Though he doesn’t walk through it himself, Stanley’s sermon opens the door to this revisionism. He says that Paul tied sexual behavior not to the old covenant, not to the Ten Commandments, but to “one commandment that Jesus gave us: that you are to treat others as God in Christ has treated you.

For Hill this is simply not enough. The example that Jesus showed us in his life. The forgiveness he showed his tormentors on the cross, the admonition to love greatly by Paul and John…not enough. As he further states:

we Christians so often fail to discern what real love amounts to, and we need the Old Testament’s commandments to shine a spotlight on our slippery self-justifications. We may intend to treat a sexual partner as God in Christ has treated us, we may try to act toward them out of self-giving love, but the distorting effects of sin mean that we must be told what love looks like in action if we’re not to get it wrong. That divine telling, sadly, is what Andy Stanley’s sermon would keep us from hearing.”

So here we have the real reason behind the uproar: the need for Christians to monitor others sexual behavior. This is the slippery slope conservatives fear if the church “unhitches” itself from following certain OT “moral laws.” Heavens! Some one might interpret that as freedom to love someone else of the same sex! And as Hill has pointed out, the OT is such a stellar example of marriage and sexual relations, come on Wesley Hill! Really? We’ve all seen the Facebook mimes. OT marriage looked nothing like marriage today, even among Southern Baptists!

So here’s the deal. The human tendency to legalism, is a universal. We gravitate towards laws. When they are used to protect us from each other, they are useful. When used to exclude, marginalize or persecute others…not so good. When treated as absolute inerrant codes of conduct, and end up hurting people, it’s time to step back and reassess things. It is my personal opinion that the doctrine of inerrancy actually produces unethical behavior in the church. One of the things that has come out of the battle for marriage equality, that SS relations would destroy the family, the nation, would result in pedophilia, that it was immoral, were false. The claims were disingenuous, misleading and were fear mongering. In Biblical parlance, it was bearing false witness.

A rigid inerrant view of scripture “unhinges” the church from the love of Christ unconditionally for others and replaces it with a “performance minded” conditional Christianity, something Stanley obviously was critiquing. As Robert Farrar Capon puts it:

I’ve always had a problem with the phrase, ‘cheap grace.’ As far as I’m concerned, nobody can make God’s grace in Jesus any cheaper than it already is: it’s free”. “…But what I really object to is people who use the so-called danger of cheap grace as a way of browbeating others into thinking there’s some level of performance they have to achieve before they can be worthy of grace.”

“…I guess what I really don’t like is the way people start out by defining sin as ‘moral failure’ and then go on to think that if they commit ‘sins’ they will cut themselves off from grace. That’s all nonsense of course: ‘sinners’ are the very thing God gives his grace to —lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons. As a matter of fact, the true New Testament opposite of sin isn’t virtue, or moral success, or getting your act together: it’s faith in the grace that takes away all the sins of the world. Paul says, ‘all that is not of faith is sin.’ And Jesus says, ‘the one who believes is not judged.’ We’re not on trial: ‘there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’”

“The Mystery of Christ and why We Don’t Get it.” p. 171-172.

I just don’t think Wesley Hill understands this, nor unfortunately, do many Christians.

Peace

Thinking Out Loud: Atonement Part 2

The “penal substitutionary atonement theory,” PSA, is the default standard amongst evangelicals for explaining Jesus’ atonement on the Cross. The theory goes back about 500 years in the church, championed by John Calvin, who had a legal background, hence the legalistic slant. While Anselm 1033-1109, saw the atonement largely as a compensation paid back to God for the debt we owed, Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers saw Christ’s death not so much as payment or satisfaction of a debt owed, but taking on a punishment that we deserved. Thus basing the atonement on satisfaction of God’s wrathful punishment.

The basic critique of the Reformers new view came from Faustus Socinus, 1539-1604, who brought up some strong criticisms of the PSA view. First off, taking satisfaction negates giving pardon, they are incompatible. Justice is not served by killing an innocent in the place of the guilty, which is scapegoating, nor can a temporary death of one cover the eternal death of many. Basically he set the stage for a debate that continues today.

Gregory Boyd has some interesting objections I will share.

1 “Does God really need to appease his wrath with a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us? If so, does this mean that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the ultimate description of God’s character? And if this is true, what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching that this law is surpassed by the law of love? Not only this, but what are we to make of all the instances in the Bible where God forgives people without demanding a sacrifice (e.g. the prodigal son)?”

2 “If God’s holiness requires that a sacrifice be made before he can fellowship with sinners, how did Jesus manage to hang out with sinners without a sacrifice, since he is as fully divine and as holy as God the Father?”

3 “If Jesus’ death allows God the Father to accept us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Jesus reconciles God to us than it is to say Jesus reconciles us to God? Yet the New Testament claims the latter and never the former (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). In fact, if God loves sinners and yet can’t accept sinners without a sacrifice, wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say that God reconciles God to himself than to say he reconciles us to God? But this is clearly an odd and unbiblical way of speaking.”

4 “How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful towards another member of the Trinity (the Son), when they are, along with the Holy Spirit, one and the same God? Can God be truly angry with God? Can God actually punish God?”

5 “If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”

6 “Are sin and guilt the sorts of things that can be literally transferred from one party to another? Related to this, how are we to conceive of the Father being angry towards Jesus and justly punishing him when he of course knew Jesus never did anything wrong?”

7 “If the just punishment for sin is eternal hell (as most Christians have traditionally believed), how does Jesus’ several hours of suffering and his short time in the grave pay for it?”

8 “If the main thing Jesus came to do was to appease the Father’s wrath by being slain by him for our sin, couldn’t this have been accomplished just as easily when (say) Jesus was a one-year-old boy as when he was a thirty-three year old man? Were Jesus’ life, teachings, healing and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die? It doesn’t seem to me that the Gospels divide up and prioritize the various aspects of Jesus’ life in this way. (I maintain that everything Jesus did was about one thing – overcoming evil with love. Hence, every aspect of Jesus was centered on atonement — that is, reconciling us to God and freeing us from the devil’s oppression.)”

9 “To raise a more controversial question, if it’s true that God’s wrath must be appeased by sacrificing his own Son, then don’t we have to conclude that pagans who have throughout history sacrificed their children to appease the gods’ wrath had the right intuition, even if they expressed it in the wrong way?”

10 “What is the intrinsic connection between what Jesus did on the cross and how we actually live? The Penal Substitution view makes it seem like the real issue in need of resolution is a legal matter in the heavenly realms between God’s holy wrath and our sin. Christ’s death changes how God sees us, but this theory says nothing about how Christ’s death changes us. This is particularly concerning to me because every study done on the subject has demonstrated that for the majority of Americans who believe in Jesus, their belief makes little or no impact on their life. I wonder if the dominance of this legal-transaction view of the atonement might be partly responsible for this tragic state of affairs.”

Boyd

http://reknew.org/2015/12/10-problems-with-the-penal-substitution-view-of-the-atonement/

The legalistic position of PSA adherents, that it satisfies justice, as I have pointed out before, really is not a just system, as Jesus was unjustly murdered. It presents us with an unjust Heavenly Father. Hyper-Calvinists like John Piper usually revert to “mystery,” that is, God’s purposes are unknowable, beyond our understanding. (I am constantly amused that those who can build elaborate intellectual rationales for God’s behavior, then fall back on mystery when flaws are revealed). 

As Piper has stated “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.”

Piper YouTube

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=taYhbRm6pnU

Piper’s basic rational, and an underlying principal of PSA, is that “God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.

Now add to that the fact we’re all sinners and deserve to die and go to hell yesterday, and the reality that we’re even breathing today is sheer common grace from God.” (Ibid.)

It is rather difficult, as one might imagine, to understand A. How is God loving? B. Is this a good “Father image?” C. How can rape, genocide and the murder of children be attributed to the loving God Jesus presents us with.

Was PSA the dominant view held in the early church? No, it was Christus Victor for the first millennium. In this view, Christ is seen as victorious over sin, death and the grave. Mankind was viewed as captive to the powers of evil, Christ rescued us. Sometimes attached, is the view that a “ransom” payment was made to the devil, as is presented in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” a trap of sorts sprung on Satan, but this is not intrinsic to the Christus Victor theory of atonement, nor particularly convincing.

One of the awkward aspects of PSA that CV overcomes is the disjuncture of the Godhead necessitated in PSA. Christus Victor “reverses this view by uniting Jesus and His Father during the Crucifixion in a subversive condemnation of the unjust powers of darkness. This is followed by the natural emphasis of Christus Victor: the Father’s vindication of Jesus in His victorious and bodily Resurrection.” 

“While largely held only by Orthodox Christians for much of the last one thousand years, the Christus Victor theory is becoming increasingly popular with both paleo-orthodox evangelicals because of its connection to the early Church fathers, and with liberal Christians and peace churches such as the Anabaptist Mennonites because of its subversive nature, seeing the death of Jesus as an exposure of the cruelty and evil present in the worldly powers that rejected and killed him, and the resurrection as a triumph over these powers.”

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christus_Victor

I think it not inconsequential, and a bit ironic, that historically the church has been divided on these two views of the atonement. There is more at play here, then mere theological hair-splitting. The PSA teaching arose out of a church world view in which the Catholic Church (and later, the Protestant Church) sought to control all of society through dominance and violence. In Christus Victor, it is those very evil tendencies that Jesus fights and overcomes. Gods who are violent produce violent followers. This has been proven time and time again historically, and is true of all religions. What we see happening in western Christianity is a concerted effort to disavow its past violence and any connection to its conception of a violent God. To repaint its past, if you will.

Unfortunately, orthodox evangelicalism begins with a violent God in the OT, continues with God’s need for a violent atonement, and ends with Jesus returning to slay most of mankind. God is straightjacketed into this human mindset of violence as the ultimate solution. It is a betrayal of the Jesus, who, on the cross, employed his Heavenly Father to “forgive them,” the very ones murdering him. The church needs a better solution to mankind’s problems then one that starts and ends with violence.