Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Evangelicalism, crucifixion and resurrection. Where is the centre of our theology?

In the piece I was invited to write for The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ section, I suggested that, as the first distinguishing mark of evangelicalism, “It is the death of Christ for sins which informs and shapes all other theology, ecclesiology, missiology and so on,” quoting in support what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures ...”

This has been queried by a couple of commentators on this blog (who are not the first to raise the point with me). John Barnett asked, “What about [Christ’s] Resurrection , particularly in view of Paul's comment in 1 Cor 15.14?” Simon Morden was more blunt: “The message of 1Cor15 (and the constant theme of Paul) is not just that Christ died for our sins, but that he rose from the dead: it is the hope we have in the risen Jesus should shape ‘all other theology, ecclesiology, missiology and so on.’”

The first point I should make in reply is that I was not, strictly speaking, arguing for the comprehensiveness, or even the accuracy, of evangelical theology. I was asked to answer a question, “What should evangelicals believe?”, and I felt the best use of my 500 word limit was to try to identify what has generated, and therefore would continue to generate, a sense of evangelical ‘identity’. I might have done the same for Anglo-Catholics, even though I am not one!

However, I would still argue that the focus I suggested is, in fact, an evangelical ‘distinctive’ (even though I expressed the wish earlier in the same article, that there should be no such thing). Simon suggests “we are an Easter people - not a Good Friday people.” I am not sure, however, that the ‘we’ here would apply to evangelicals as they have been historically.

In evangelicalism, the resurrection has not, in fact, been the primary focus either of theology generally or evangelism specifically. Evangelicals have been, in fact, a Good Friday people, not an Easter people, and in support of this I would point to Tom Wright’s recent Surprised by Hope.

Wright correctly identifies the weakness that has grown up in much traditional Christian understanding surrounding the resurrection of Jesus and its implications for both the present and the future. Too often, the resurrection has been taken to imply “a glorious, blissful world beyond this one” (p 303), rather than the biblical hope of a new heavens and a new earth. The emphasis in this ‘hope’ is on what happens to the individual, not what happens to creation.

Wright’s work also suggests that this is, if anything, a bigger problem for those who believe Christ rose bodily than it is for those who have ‘demythologized’ his resurrection into a survival of his message. At the end of the book he presents two caricature clergy — the ‘evangelical’ and the ‘liberal’ — each holding forth about the implications of the Easter message and each, in their own way, wrong: the evangelical in his application and the liberal in his reasoning.

There is much truth in what Wright says, but my point is that this confusion about the resurrection — the next part of the tradition Paul handed on — has hardly impinged at all on evangelical identity. Nor, despite what Wright argues, would the necessary corrections here make much difference at all to evangelical proclamation. Or rather, if it did, that proclamation would cease to be what has previously been regarded as evangelical.

In my own case, for example, I came to the realization long ago that the Christian hope was not of ‘you going to heaven when you die’, but of ‘heaven joining with earth at Christ’s return’. It did not, however, change my evangelism one iota, nor did it make me feel I was at odds with evangelical tradition. Wright does argue for such a transformed agenda (p 218, et seq), but I did not find myself persuaded that this was necessary from the valid points he makes about our hope.

This is not, however, simply a matter of how we do evangelism or mission. It concerns the fundamental shape of our theology, and the question of how that relates to the crucifixion and resurrection. I am not, of course, denying the latter. Nor am I saying that the economy of salvation finished at the cross. We must include the ascension, heavenly session and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as well as Christ’s final return in judgement, to get the whole picture (cf 1 Cor 15:24-28).

But there is an important question about the ‘centre of gravity’ of the work of salvation. There is a proportionality and logical relationship to be established between the various parts, and in this regard I think Paul does indeed set the crucifixion at the centre of his soteriology, with the other parts of his theology arranged around, and deriving from, that.

The chief reason for this, I would hold, is that Paul’s theology of salvation is Christocentric. That is to say, it is shaped by understanding who Christ is and what Christ has done. As a Pharisee, Paul already believed in the resurrection of the dead (and indeed the new heavens and the new earth, see Acts 23:6 where he uses this to divide his opponents). The transformation in his theology was in seeing that the crucified Jesus was the Christ. It was thus his understanding of the crucifixion that changed the way he thought about everything else.

Consequently I am entirely with Martin Luther at this point: Crux sola est nostra theologia — the cross alone is our theology (WA 5.176.32-3).

There are, however, some subsidiary points to note. First, the crucifixion and the resurrection must be distinguished within the economic Trinity as works of the incarnate Son and works of God the Father. The emphasis throughout the New Testament is that Christ died and that God raised him from the dead. This entails, I think, a logical relationship between the parts of the process of salvation which again makes the cross central to both the old and the new creations.

It is Christ through whom and for whom the world was made (Col 1:16), and it is the blood of Christ — his death on the cross — which redeems creation: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth,” (Revelation 5:9-10). Christ’s resurrection, and ours, is the fruit of that ‘scroll opening’ by his blood (cf Rev 5:5-6).

Secondly, the repeated sacramental action of the church ‘proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor 11:26). Here, I found Wright’s presentation unfortunately weak. The way he presents it in Surprised by Hope, for Wright, the chief significance of the eucharist is that, “It is the future coming to meet us in the present” (p 287). That is a significance, however, which I must say is very hard to find in either the New Testament or the liturgies of the Church (especially the Church of England). Wright’s argument is about how Jesus is present in the eucharist, but it avoids both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican understandings — the former that he is present in the ‘host’ as victim, the latter that he is present ‘by faith’ in the heart of the believer (“feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”, BCP).

The resurrection per se does not feature highly in our eucharistic liturgies for the precise reason that it does not feature in the New Testament accounts (cf 1 Cor 11:22-26). Wright’s account of the eucharist is thus, I think, tendentious.

There is more, undoubtedly, that could be said, but time and space preclude it at this moment. I hope this may make clear, however, why I take it that we are, indeed, an ‘Easter people’ (though I heartily dislike the association with the pagan ‘Eostre’ — which may itself be another argument about the balance!) because we are a Good Friday — a paschal — people first.

John Richardson
9 December 2008

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9 comments:

  1. John, I understand why you did not include His Resurrection in your first 500 words. However, may I ask 4 questions?:
    1.What did Messiah achieve by His Resurrection?

    2.You write, 'We must include …...Christ’s final return in judgement, (cf 1 Cor 15:24-28).
    Is there not a time difference between 15.23 and 24?

    3. You write, 'First, the crucifixion and the resurrection must be distinguished within the economic Trinity as works of the incarnate Son and works of God the Father. The emphasis throughout the New Testament is that Christ died and that God raised him from the dead.'

    Is this comment very close to pantheism?

    4. You write, 'I hope this may make clear, however, why I take it that we are, indeed, an ‘Easter people’ (though I heartily dislike the association with the pagan ‘Eostre’ — which may itself be another argument about the balance!) because we are a Good Friday — a paschal — people first.'

    Is not this tradition a replacement of Passover with Easter?

    As you know,John, I am a Jewish believer, and not a Christian. As a Jew I have some difficulty with the apparent pantheism of the Christian doctrine of the trinity.

    In addition, I find it odd that Christian believers seem to object to celebrating the Biblical Festivals that God set out, preferring to celebrate christianised pagan ones. Not only that, but also the misunderstanding of Good Friday Crucifixion and Easter Sunday Resurrection is very strange to a Jew who reads the Gospels. It is clear from the Gospel accounts that the Crucifixion was on Wed and the Resurrection on Sat, the weekly Sabbath.

    Surely God had a reason for His calendar of Festivals....

    My main question is, What did Messiah achieve by His Resurrection? I suspect that the answer to this might raise the profile of His Resurrection in evangelical theology!

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  2. "Here, I found Wright’s presentation unfortunately weak. The way he presents it in Surprised by Hope, for Wright, the chief significance of the eucharist is that, “It is the future coming to meet us in the present” (p 287). That is a significance, however, which I must say is very hard to find in either the New Testament or the liturgies of the Church (especially the Church of England)."
    I've always thought of the Anglican notion of the eucharist as being the opposite of what you quote Wright as saying, viz. that Christ in the benefits of his past cross (epaphax) mets us in the present. I wonder if Wright is echoing Moltmann here, whose 'Theology of hope' ideas were fashionable 20 years ago.
    I agree with your presentation of the cross as 'the centre of gravity' of Christian theology, or the lens through which everything else in the work of Christ must be understood.

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  3. Revd Dr J Keir Howard (Wellington, NZ)9 December 2008 at 23:35

    I very much appreciated your comments and would add my own emphasis on your conviction of the centrality of the Cross to all Christian thought. St Paul made it abundantly clear that his own message was centred in a crucified Messiah - to the Greeks folly and to the Jews a scandal. It is this paradoxical message of the cross which has always been the heart of the gospel and in which countless folk down the ages have shared Paul's boast.
    The resurrection (however we may wish to understand it - and I judge that Paul was closer to a 'spiritual' understanding than many would recognise) was the guarantee of the effectiveness and completemness of what was accomplished at the Cross. There could be no Easter Day without Good Friday, but at the same time Good Friday would be a dead end without Easter Day. The two need to be held in balance. Even though the cross will always remain central, it remains incomplete without resurrection.

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  4. John, in response to your questions:

    1.What did Messiah achieve by His Resurrection?

    I’m not sure Messiah achieved anything by his resurrection! What I mean is, the emphasis is on God raising Jesus from the dead. Thus in 1 Cor 15:4 the verb is passive: he ‘was raised’ (not he ‘rose’). The ‘action’ of Jesus was to die and to entrust himself into the ‘hands of God’ (Lk 23:46). The response of God was to raise him from the dead, declaring him Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36).

    2.You write, 'We must include …...Christ’s final return in judgement, (cf 1 Cor 15:24-28). Is there not a time difference between 15.23 and 24?

    The ‘standard’ sequence of amillennial Christianity is (1) Christ’s resurrection, (2) the general resurrection at his second coming (parousia) and the judgement, (3) the new heavens and the new earth.

    3. You write, 'First, the crucifixion and the resurrection must be distinguished within the economic Trinity as works of the incarnate Son and works of God the Father. The emphasis throughout the New Testament is that Christ died and that God raised him from the dead.' Is this comment very close to pantheism?

    I’m not sure you mean ‘pantheism’ — “the belief that God can be identified with the universe”. What I’m saying is part of standard Trinitarian theology — but I know you’ve got a difficulty there.

    4. You write, 'I hope this may make clear, however, why I take it that we are, indeed, an ‘Easter people’ (though I heartily dislike the association with the pagan ‘Eostre’ — which may itself be another argument about the balance!) because we are a Good Friday — a paschal — people first.' Is not this tradition a replacement of Passover with Easter?

    I probably sounded keener on ‘Easter’ than I intended! Actually I rather like the idea of saying, “We are a paschal people.”

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  5. It's interesting that we make GOOD Friday quite a solomn occasion and Easter (Resurrection day) all joyful.

    The Apostles' preaching presents the cross as the means to forgiveness and his resurection as the guarentee of future judgement! So the cross should provoke joy and the resurrection sober reflection.

    Of course the 2 ideas are linked. Jesus couldn't have risen without first being dead! And the cross saves from the judgement that the resurrection guarentees.

    John B - I really sympathise with your comment about festivals. In Paul's writtings he talks about us being free from OT festivals as they are shadows of the reality (Christ). But it is odd that we celebrate borrowed/stolen shadows. Although Jesus return (advent), Incarnation (Christmas), death and resurrection are worth giving a cheer too (although we should all year round, especially during communion) and make sure we give them a good plug, not to mention a whole load of pagan people randomly walk into our Churches at those times.

    Darren Moore
    Tranmere

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  6. John, many thanks for your answers. May I beg your indulgence with aome points on your answers?
    1. I suspect that it is useful to compare the Resurrection with Passover and the Exodus since at the very least the celebration of both is a coincidence of timing!

    The Jewish understanding of Passover is that it is the Feast of Freedom. This freedom is the freedom to choose since slavery denies that freedom to choose.

    The redemption from slavery in Egypt gave Israel the opportunity to choose. The OT is a thoroughly embarrassing historical record of Israel's almost continuous failure to make the correct choice...either God's ways or 'doing what is right in our own eyes'. Perhaps a positive result of this embarrassment is that the OT must be true on the basis that noone would willingly record such stupid behaviour!!

    The freedom to choose became available because the power of Egypt to keep Israel captive was broken.

    That, for a Jew, is the essence of the Resurrection. Messiah's destruction of death broke the power of sin so that we are, if we choose Him, no longer a slave to sin.

    The problem about the Temple sacrificial system, apart from its cumbersome process and expense (Oi vey!), was that it was never intended by God to provide either a universal or a complete solution for sin. It was a model of the process steps necessary to restore a broken relationship with God.

    The reason why the offerings had to be made again and again was because the ppl were unable to break free from the power of sin, and therefore however contrite they were, they remained slaves to sin.

    Messiah's Crucifixion and Resurrection ransomed with His blood at His Crucifixion, and redeemed all ppl (if they so choose)from the power of sin and the consequence of death at His Resurrection.

    The result of choosing to be 'slave to righteousness' rather than a 'slave to sin' has, according to Messiah's words, some potentially spectacular spiritual AND physical consequences in our lives.

    2. You write, 'The ‘standard’ sequence of amillennial Christianity is (1) Christ’s resurrection, (2) the general resurrection at his second coming (parousia) and the judgement, (3) the new heavens and the new earth.'

    Surely the problem with amillennialism is that it kicks into touch substantial chunks of the Prophets, most of Revelation, and much of the Olivet discourse?

    However, your use of the word 'standard' was perhaps mischievous!! Should you have a moment to comment on my booklet on the Second Coming, I would appreciate it.

    Onward and upwards....!!

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  7. John, many thanks for your comments. Stimulating as always.

    I'd be interested to hear your own comments on the interconnectedness (if any) of Deuteronomy 10:16, Deuteronomy 30:6, Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 36:26-27 and finally Galatians 3:14.

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  8. May I have a short time to answer? You list 5 info packed passages that need more than a quick summary view, not least because they raise the issues of the Millennium, and Paul's conflict with first century Rabbinic Judaism. But, then, that is why you asked for a comment from me....!!!
    I will respond as best I can and as soon as I can.

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  9. Thomas Carlyle once apologised for writing a long letter because he did not have time to write a short one...I have the same problem, but I am also not competent to write a long one...So what can I do to answer your question?

    There is a basic difference between the Christian hope and the Jewish hope.

    The Christian hope, as I understand it, is the hope of eternal life in God to be experienced fully in the new heavens and the new earth.

    The Jewish hope is participation in the Millennium/Messianic Age/Athid Lavo/The Coming to come which will last for 1000 years and its characteristics will be as described in Isaiah 11, Micah 4, and many other passages in the Prophets. At the end of this period there is the final Judgment which ushers in the renewed heavens and earth. In this hope, eternal life is a given.

    In one of your answers, you outlined the 'standard' amillennial view. You may well be right, but there was no amillennial view in the first century.

    In our western culture it is our practice to put labels on ppl so that we can be clear who someone is, and where he is coming from. We then feel comfortable in dealing with them....or not, in which case we do not pursue the relationship!!

    It may help to put a label on me. Briefly, I am an ethnic Jew who believes that Jesus is my , and your, Messiah. I express my faith in Messiah in the way that I live. I keep the Torah, the Law of Moses, because that is what my Messiah told me to do...to Keep My Commandments.
    For me, that means, practically, that I keep the Sabbath, keep kosher, wear fringes, and read the Triennial Readings lectionary on a weekly basis. I try with occasional moments of success to follow the maxim that Messiah quoted from Rabbi Hillel:
    Do not do unto others that which you would hate being done to yourself. That is the essence of God's Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study it.

    Much of our mutual misunderstanding, as Christians and Jews, has resulted from our failure to understand what God is saying in the Bible.

    The problem is that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Both these closely related languages have a different mindset to our western languages. The Hebrew idioms, images, parallelisms, wordplays, and concepts of time and space, are different from our western ones.

    Just one example. Have you noticed that over the years there has been little or no Jewish comment or involvement in the creation/evolution debate? Is this not odd,
    particularly as the creation argument is predicated on Gen 1 & 2, the Hebrew Scriptures? The reason that there has been little Jewish involvement in the debate is that in Hebrew understanding
    'In the beginning' does NOT refer to the start of the the rock that we live on. It does NOT refer to the supposed 'big bang'. It refers to the beginning of God's relationship with man. That is why John begins his Gospel with 'in the beginning'.He is referring to the relationship of God with man which Messiah explained, lived out, restored, redeemed, and interpreted correctly.

    Yes, the 5 passages you list are, I believe, all inter connected on the basis of 1 John 2.2: Messiah is the atonement for our sins, and not for ours (Jewish) only, but for the sins of the whole world.

    I am an ethnic Jew, and you are an ethnic Gentile. As believers in Messiah we should be working together to become the one new man that Paul talks about in Ephesians, and that Messiah prayed in John 17.
    Our respective ethnicity is irrelevant, and less than helpful. It's time to do something about becoming one new man!!

    But how can we meet when so much tradition divides us? Tradition, tradition, as Tevye complained....all is Tradition.

    Many years ago I asked a senior Anglican churchman what were the respective levels of authority that the Church gives to the Bible
    and to tradition. His answer was 'about 50/50'.

    My question to the Chief Rabbi would probably get the same answer, if not 75/25 in favour of tradition.

    It is terribly difficult to deal with
    'tradition', especially since 'we know best'...

    Keep well, shamar shalom, guard, protect, and cherish the peace, healing, and wholeness that Messiah gives you in Him.

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