“Ocupado”

“Ocupado”

On Catholic Crosses, Welcoming a Son, and “Being Gangsta”

When I was five or six, I remember being allowed to visit the local Dollar General Store to spend “my very own money” on whatever I liked.

I selected a massive golden crucifix on a gaudy golden chain.

I was (and am) a Gangsta.

Upon showing the purchase to my parents, I was informed that I had made a slight mistake. This was a “Catholic” cross, as evidenced by the gold-plated Jesus hanging from it.

While we were cool with the Catholics, I was told that “Our crosses are empty.”

The point, for Protestants, is that Jesus is no longer on the cross—he’s risen—so we prefer our sacred death-devices to be unoccupied. Or for my Spanish readers: desocupado.

El Jesús del hospital

Fast-forward thirty years and I sit now inside a Catholic hospital where I will also be allowed to spend some of my “very own money”—but it’s been worth every penny.

Yesterday, we unexpectedly welcomed our fourth child (Theodore Brian) three weeks early.

Teddy

And right above my head, as I now type, there is another Catholic crucifix.

And somehow it seems fitting.

Yesterday, when Teddy was born, he was having some trouble breathing. While the doctors weren’t too worried, his respiration was far more rapid (that’s: rapido) than desirable. And to make matters worse, he could not go to Brianna’s room to in such a state.

So there I sat in the nursery—stripped to the waist so he could feel my skin—singing “Hush little baby” in front of a plate-glass window through which onlookers watched a topless professor who probably looked like a pasty primate trying to “nurse” a baby (*despite some gender confusion).

Mire mamá, un chimpancé blanco

Thankfully, Teddy is fine – but as I sit now under a suspended Christ, I am thankful for the Catholic crucifix. It is not necessarily better than its more triumphant counterpart, and in some ways it may occasionally be prone to fetished misconstrual.

But in some settings—like the hospital—it also seems more helpful.

By it I was vividly reminded that mine was not the only Son to struggle for breath in a world that is harsh and cruel compared to that from whence he came. And unlike mine, this other Son could not feel his Father’s presence, much less his skin.

Eloi, Eloi…, he screamed, and was not comforted. 

Señor Grünewald

Rewind five hundred years and a man named Matthias Grünewald sits painting an altarpiece for a monastery that doubled as a hospital.

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M. Grunewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece

The location, Isenheim, in France, had been afflicted by a terrible plague that manifested in festering sores upon the skin.

Like Jesus, its survivors were forever scarred.matthias_grc3bcnewald_-_the_crucifixion_28detail29_-_wga10790

Famously, Grünewald infected Christ. He chose to paint the sores upon the Savior.

The message was clear. As the Book of Hebrews states: We do not have a High Priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our travails (Heb. 4.15). He knows. He’s been there.

He knows what it’s like to gasp for breath, to have a prayer go unanswered, to feel betrayed by friends, belittled by cynics, and beaten up by bullies. He was murdered naked in front of his own mother. And while the good news is that the cross is no longer ocupado, sometimes it helps to see—yes, actually see—the Catholic version.

Because while language is a gift, some images transcend translation.

Winking at the Devil

Winking at the Devil

Every story needs a villain.

And in much of the Christian tradition, that character is unquestionably the devil.

In recent days, I’ve been focusing my energy on a non-blog-related project: a book on the atonement. And the present chapter has to do with Satan.  This sounds like a strange topic for the Christmas season. Yet the Scriptures connect it explicitly with Christ’s coming.  As 1 John writes:

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (3.8).

Yet while belief in God is quite common throughout our culture, belief in Satan does not rank nearly so highly.

As the late Walter Wink put it, the demonic is “the drunk uncle of the twentieth century.” We keep them out of sight.  And we don’t talk about them at dinner parties.  As he goes on:

Nothing commends Satan to the modern mind. [He is] a scandal, a stone of stumbling, a bone in the throat of modernity.

As evidence, a recent Barna survey indicated that around half of American Christians do not believe in the devil as a living being. Rather, they tend to see him as a mere symbol for profound evil.

REVIVING “OLD SCRATCH”

In response to this, Richard Beck, in his new book Reviving Old Scratch, describes the modern experience somewhat like the plotline from an episode of “Scooby Doo.”

STAGE ONE: At the beginning of every episode, whatever evil that had transpired was blamed on some sort of ghost or goblin. The supernatural was everywhere! And it was up to no good. Beck calls this Stage One, or the period of “enchantment.”

STAGE TWO: Yet after some investigation by Scooby and the gang, it was invariably discovered that the “ghost” was really “Old man Cringle” with a fog machine, a bed sheet, and some fancy voice modulation. Beck calls this Stage Two: the age of “disenchantment.” And as he argues, it has much to commend it. After all, science has shown that many ancient superstitions were just that.

STAGE THREE: Yet in Stage Three (not included in the Scooby Doo episodes), Beck argues that we need a kind of “re-enchantment” if we want to account fully for the pervasive nature of evil in this world. In his view, this is not a simple return to a belief in a demon behind every bush. But nor is it the peculiarly modern (white, wealthy, and western) superstition of full-fledged naturalism.

TWO DANGERS

In his own way, C.S. Lewis proposed something similar. As he wrote:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which [we] can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

The unhealthy interest is encountered in various forms. One is the tendency we all have to demonize our opponents, detecting whiffs of sulfur in their presence. Case in point:

hitler

Or as Beck writes:

            We always smell sulfur around those we want to kill.

A second form of unhealthy interest comes when Christians use Satan as an excuse to cover their own faults.

Along these lines, I recall once being in a meeting in which serious allegations (and serious evidence!) were brought forth regarding misconduct. When confronted, one leader responded that “This is just Satan getting angry because we’re doing such good work!”

Sometimes sulfur masks our own scent.

Thirdly, Satan can be wrongly used as a tool to terrify people into compliance, as seen in the Christian cottage industry that springs up around Halloween to scare the “heck” out of unsuspecting sinners as they wander through a warehouse version of the afterlife.

Such moves confuse a love of Jesus with fear of torture.

Finally, an excessive interest in “the devils” can lead to a dualism that puts God and Satan on (almost) the same level. This is not the biblical portrait. For as Luther wrote of Satan–and perhaps enacted by hurling his ink well at the devil–“one little word shell fell him.”

LOVE IS AN EXORCISM

Yet while “excessive interest” carries pitfalls, unbelief does too.

It does nothing to stop the march of minions. For as Wink notes: Disbelief in Satan did little to prevent him running roughshod across corporate boardrooms and bloodstained battlefields throughout modernity.

What is needed, Wink suggests, is a kind of exorcism, though not the kind from horror movies.  In his words:

The march across the Selma bridge by black civil rights advocates was an act of exorcism. It exposed the demon of racism, stripping away the screen of legality and custom for the entire world to see.

What’s more:

The best “exorcism” of all is accepting love. It is finally love, love alone, that heals the demonic. “How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke, “who at the last minute turn into princesses that are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave?”

CONCLUSION

In the end, Wink’s work (and even the above quote) shows forth certain faults. In particular, he demythologizes far more than I would, and his views on Christ, creation, and atonement are hardly biblical in certain respects.

Nonetheless, he did do the academy a great service by restarting the conversation on evil powers, and by showing how spirituality interlocks with political, psychological, and social forces of all kinds.

If you’re interested in reading more, try the following:

  • Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers.(here)
    • An academic work, but very readable with vivid prose and applications.
  • Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. (here)
    • An easy-to-read popularizing of some of Wink’s ideas.

Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty? (Part 1 of 2)

Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty? (Part 1 of 2)

For those who are interested in theology, here is another atonement post with a question to consider:

In the Bible, God is a forgiver.

As Psalm 130 states:

If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,

Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness (vss. 3-4a).

Dozens of passages could be added to this, but as Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”

So here is what may seem like a strange question:

  • Can we really say that God “forgave” sins if Jesus paid the price for them?

For many Christians, one meaning of the cross is that Christ willingly bore the penalty that we deserved. Therefore, there is “no condemnation” for us (Rom. 8.1), because Jesus was condemned in our place. This is referred to as “penal substitution,” and it sometimes focuses on the idea that sin’s price was paid in full.

Yet for the contemporary theologian Greg Boyd, this runs counter to the Bible’s claim that God “forgives.”

As Boyd argues, forgiveness is “the release of a debt.” Yet:

“If God must always get what is coming to him in order to forgive (namely, “a kill”), does God ever really forgive?”[1]

Boyd thinks not. And for him, this is yet another reason to abandon penal substitution for more coherent understandings of atonement (see more here ). As he explains:

“If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? Yes, you got off the hook. But forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”[2]

So what do you think? Does Boyd’s point resonate with you? Why or why not?

While I would not claim that penal substitution is somehow the “most important” model of atonement, I am currently looking at some objections to it for a chapter in a larger book. Hence the repetition of the penal substitution questions.

This question builds on two previous posts (here and here), which examined a related objection  involving the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you are new, see those prior posts for further context.

 

———————

[1] Gregory Boyd, “Christus Victor Response,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, eds. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 104.

[2] Gregory Boyd, “The Danger of the Penal Substitution View of Atonement.” Re|knew. November 20, 2014. Accessed April 2, 2016. http://reknew.org/2014/11/the-danger-of-the-penal-substitution-view-of-atonement/.

Does the Prodigal Son Discredit Penal Substitution (Part 2 of 2)

Today is Good Friday.

And to be honest, it seems almost profane to dissect the organs of atonement on this day. “We murder to dissect.”[1] And Good Friday is about a different murder.

As Steve Holmes puts it:

“Christians have always been more concerned to stand under the cross than to understand it. And rightly so.”[2]

Amen.

Yet perhaps it is possible to think critically about atonement doctrine in a way that is worshipful, and even honoring to those of different views.

That’s my goal.

In the last post, I asked whether the parable of the prodigal son discredits penal substitution given that the father does not require retributive justice in order to forgive. In support of this notion were scholars like Paul Fiddes, as well as others.

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The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni

What I Appreciate about this Claim

I’ll begin with what I appreciate about this argument. I love the idea that the Gospels—and (gasp!) even the words of Jesus himself—might inform the way we understand atonement. That may sound rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how little the Gospels sometimes play into our interpretations of the cross.

Sometimes, it seems to be assumed that Paul, or maybe the Torah, gives us our understanding of atonement, while Jesus is the engine that makes it all work. Yet to presume this is demeaning to both the Gospel writers as theologians, and (worse yet!) to the person of Christ.

To lay my cards on the table, I do affirm a nuanced version of penal substitution (even if the label itself is somewhat clunky). Yet I do so, in part, because of statements from the Gospels. One is the accidental prophecy of Caiaphas, that “it would be better for one man to die on behalf of the people than for the whole nation to perish” (Jn. 11.50). A second is Jesus’ own understanding of the “cup” that he must drink (Lk. 22), which in the Scriptures is the cup of divine wrath or judgment.

When combined, these passages as well as others begin (in my view) to form a picture of penal substitution. But it would be easy to skip over them in a rush toward Paul or the sacrificial system.

I want to commend Fiddes and the rest for considering that Jesus himself might have some crucial insights on the nature of atonement.

Why I Disagree 

The problem, in my view, resides in an attempt to make this particular parable address something that it was never intended to—namely, how (specifically) atonement does or does not work.

In my judgment, it’s just not about that.

In Luke’s account, the story comes as the third in a series of parables (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son), which all illustrate that God delights in restoring lost people. This, after all, is why Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk. 15.2). In this way, his love is a perfect reflection of the heavenly Father, who “so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son” (Jn. 3.16).

No account of penal substitution would deny such basic truths. Thus, to make a charge against the necessity of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice on the grounds that the parable doesn’t specifically mention it is both an argument from silence and a rather obvious example of decontexualization.

The tendency to over-read the parables has always been there, as evidenced by the early Christian slant toward hyper-allegory. Still, just as the purpose of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16) is not to provide a map of hell—complete with a broad chasm and the ability to send out unfilled drink orders (vs. 24)—so too, the purpose of the Prodigal Son is likely not to give a detailed map of atonement doctrine.

The story is about a more basic reality: God delights in welcoming repentant sinners, and he calls the “elder brothers” of the world to join the celebration.

A Possible Objection  

Yet perhaps we must say more. As one might object, in the parable, forgiveness comes apart from any obvious penalty imposed. Thus, if one were to press the story to account for this—a move that I have already acknowledged as highly suspect—the question still remains: How does a penal substitutionary model account for this?

Option #1: There is a Penalty of Sorts Within the Story

One option might be to acknowledge that there is a penalty (of sorts) within the story. As I have been reminded, the father himself absorbs a massive loss of property and honor, and especially in his choice to welcome the son with no public shaming or retribution. In an honor and shame culture, this is literally unfathomable. It costs the father greatly.

Indeed, such forgiveness is always costly. Just ask the parents who (somehow) choose to forgive their child’s murderer, and then to advocate against the death penalty. There is a sense in which such acts always take the evil within themselves and absorb a kind of penalty.

So too in Christ’s story. Here, it is the God character who chooses to absorb the blow. And penal substitution says something similar.

Option #2: The Cross Looks Backwards

A second possible answer to the objection would be to acknowledge that the cross is retroactive in its scope. In this way, its redemptive shadow spreads backwards over human history, as well as forwards. If this is true, then any reconciliation with the heavenly Father is made possible by the atoning work of Jesus. This is why the elder brother need not be (ridiculously) punished in order to forgive the other.

We see something like this in the way Paul deals with the forgiven sins of past times. How, for instance, was David pardoned for his horrific crimes? In the Old Testament, there is no mention of God needing to take a pound of flesh in order to forgive the murderous king. So how does this forgiveness (e.g., Ps. 51) come?

The best answer is the blood of Jesus.

As Paul hints in Romans, “in his forbearance [God] had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Yet now, his “righteousness,” which includes the promised covenantal curse, has been demonstrated in the sacrificial shedding of Christ’s blood (Rom. 3.25). If this is true, then one reason that the Father freely and justly welcomes repentant sinners in any age is that the covenantal curse for sin has already been borne in Jesus. Indeed, in one sense, it happened from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13.8).

The cross looks backwards as well as forward. And if this is true, then the (fictitious) younger brother is forgiven freely, as we all are—by the blood of Christ.

A Cause for Worship

Even here, however, it is not that God must vent sadistic wrath in order to forgive.

This is not what penal substitution means. The actual model centers on a covenant.

In this covenant, God binds himself to humans. There are blessings in this union and curses for disunion. Yet at the moment when our fate seemed hopeless–while we were in a “far off country,” smelling of pigs, and squandering our wealth on empty trinkets–God took the penalty upon himself, absorbing far more than a loss of property and honor.

This is an act of truly “prodigal” grace.

And so we stand under the cross today, knowing we will never understand it.

But grateful to be home.

 

 

 

—–

[1] William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.”

[2] Stephen R. Holmes, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History (London: Paternoster, 2007), 1.

Does the Prodigal Son Discredit Penal Substitution? (Part 1 of 2)

For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a book on the atonement. And since that’s where my research has been, I thought that Holy Week would be a good time to start an ongoing series on the subject. Toward that end, this first installment (part 1 of 2) involves a parable and penal substitution.

Without question, the parable of the prodigal son, or the two sons (Luke 15), is one of the most compelling stories in the Bible.

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The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni

It is the gospel itself. And even leaving aside questions of meaning and application, the arrangement of the narrative is simply brilliant.

This is true right down to the open-ended final scene. Here, the screen fades to black just as the father invites the elder brother to join the party, and the hearers are left wondering which path he’ll choose: the way of nature, or the way of grace (Cue that beautiful scene from the movie “Tree of Life”). The question is made all the more pointed when we realize that Jesus is telling the story to a room that is literally divided between the elder and younger brothers (Pharisees and tax collectors). For this reason, it was likely a rather tense transition to whatever came next that day.

So here’s what may seem like a strange question: Does this parable really discredit the idea that our forgiveness hinges upon Christ bearing the divine penalty for human sin?

Since the query may seem unrelated to Jesus’ story, I begin with some context.

The above understanding of the cross—in which Jesus freely takes the punishment that we deserved—is often referred to as penal substitution.

Amongst modern evangelicals, it is arguably the most common model of atonement, and it is also highly controversial. As stated above, it centers on the idea that Jesus suffered a divinely sanctioned penalty (whether damnation, divine wrath, god-forsakenness, etc.) “in our place,” and “instead of us.” For this reason, God’s justice is seen to be maintained in that he punishes sin, even while divine mercy is displayed in that God forgives repentant sinners.

As one might expect, there is a mountain of scholarly literature surrounding penal substitution. Whole rives of ink have been spilled and entire forests slain.

Thankfully, almost none of that concerns us here.

For now, the only question I am interested in is the one above: Does the story of prodigal son discredit penal substitution?

Interestingly, several scholars think so.

Take, for instance, the Oxford theologian, Paul Fiddes.

As Fiddes argues, penal substitution wrongfully places a law of necessary punishment above the character of God. In so doing, it wrongfully claims that God could not forgive apart from Christ bearing our punishment. Fiddes, rejects this notion, and he finds support for this rejection in the story of prodigal son.

In the parable, the father freely forgives his repentant son without the need to punish anyone. This, after all, is what forgiveness is. And if this is how it works with the father in the story, then why not with our heavenly Father? Why must Christ be punished in order for God to forgive his wayward children? Clearly the parable does not depict forgiveness like this.[1]

In recent years, evangelical scholars like Mark Baker and Joel Green have made similar statements about the implications of the parable.[2]

To add some color to such claims, Robin Collins even offers a creative reworking of the story to show how it might have gone if the presuppositions of penal substitution were in place.

Think of this as a an alternative history, Reformation re-mix:

Here, the father “cannot simply forgive” the returning son, for “it would be against the moral order of the entire universe.” As he states:

“Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath—my avenging justice—must be placated.”

In a twist, the elder brother then speaks up, as the Christ figure, with an offer to endure the father’s wrath on behalf of his guilty sibling (as you can see, this brother is quite different from the one in Jesus’ story). As he states:

Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath.” … And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father’s wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.[3]

The retelling is ingenious, but does it really show that the actual parable invalidates belief in penal substitution?
While this post (part 1) has merely sought to introduce the charge, the next one (part 2) will provide my own thoughts on this question.

In the meantime, I’m interested in your thoughts. What say you?

 

———–

[1] Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 101–103 esp.

[2] Mark Baker and Joel Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 174.

[3] Robin Collins, “Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory,” http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/Philosophical%20Theology/Atonement/AT7.HTM (accessed Mar. 16, 2016).