More on atonement. . .

I’ve recently found it a tad unusual that we Christians place the crucifixion of King Jesus at the center of our faith. Any cursory reading of the four Evangelists’ renditions of the gospel coupled with St. Paul’s writings on the matter should yield the conclusion that it’s the resurrection of King Jesus, not his death that should be central to our faith.

Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of centering my faith in Jesus on his death for almost my entire Christian life.

Recently, however, it’s become somewhat clear to me that God’s work in the world is reconciliatory, and that it manifests relationally rather than transactionally.

Here’s what I mean by that.

The foundation of a penal substitution theory of atonement is the idea that our offense to God creates a debt that we owe him. That debt demands payment, and thanks to King Jesus, we don’t have to pay that debt; rather, he pays it on our behalf. In other words, the debt we owe to God can be removed from our account and placed on King Jesus’ account. For example, let’s say I ran my car into someone else’s car. I don’t have the money to pay for the repairs, but a friend steps in to pay off my debt. In case you missed it, my benevolent friend plays the role of Jesus in this analogy.

Here’s the problem with that. Reconciliation has not actually taken place. The debt has been paid, yes, but God is not in the business of debt relief. He’s in the reconciliation business.

Let’s draw up another analogy. If I were to cheat on my wife (I’m unmarried, so this example falls a bit flat in reality, but I believe it works in theory), no one can come in and “pay my debt” to my wife. There’s no transaction that can repair and reconcile the broken relationship. There are only two things that can reconcile this relationship: my hypothetical wife’s forgiveness and my repentance. (Again, if you missed it, my hypothetical wife plays the role of God in this analogy.)

Throughout the Old Testament, God uses marriage metaphors to describe the broken relationship he has with Israel. He’s summoning his wife. He’s telling her that he forgives her and that their relationship can be restored if she would only repent.

But here’s where penal substitution theory does the most damage to a full understanding of the gospel. It minimizes King Jesus’ life and resurrection to little more than abstractions that exist in the story to support his death. His miracles and teachings are simply there to prove that he is the Son of God and thus someone worthy to pay our debt. His resurrection is simply there to show us how powerful he is.

But to the observer of King Jesus’ life, it was clear that he was doing something more than simply paying humanity’s debt. And that “more” isn’t just supplemental material. The point of King Jesus’ arrival on earth must not be missed or misplaced. It was to announce and usher in a new kingdom—a reversal, if you will, of the imperialism that had dominated Israel’s thinking for generations and was now dominating Israel herself through Roman rule.

Jesus was showing us that the kingdom of God was coming—rather, had already arrived—by way of his teachings and his miracles. At every turn, Jesus was upending the common power structure, both at a small scale in the way he treated children and at a larger scale in the way he treated law enforcement (the Pharisees).

His crucifixion, as crucial as it is to our faith, is not the bloody masterpiece that God had ordained would be the vehicle for our salvation (as proponents of penal substitution theory would have you believe). Rather, it was the necessary means to his ultimate inauguration as King. Trial by fire, perhaps. More fittingly, I believe, it was the stage for his final and most glorious act.

You see, to a Jewish mind, the resurrection is the culmination of Israel’s story. At the end of time, Jews—and indeed the whole world—would be raised to life again after death. No other belief system outside Judaism held to any idea that resembled resurrection. To be certain, some Greeks and Romans (and others, I would assume) held to some sort of afterlife, but resurrection was an ideology limited to Judaism, and then even a limited subset of Jews until the late-biblical to early-postbiblical periods. (Daniel, the latest of the biblical writers, was the first to exhibit a belief in resurrection. Earlier writings, such as the Psalms, denied such a doctrine.)

The resurrection of Jesus is a distinctly Jewish act. While it certainly had reverberations outside Judaism and into the Roman world, it had its greatest impact in Jewish theology. If the resurrection meant the end of all things, what then did it mean for only one man to be resurrected?

The answer lies within the existence of something called the Church. Resurrection is the beginning of our story—the Church’s story. Resurrection is the inauguration of the kingdom of God, a kingdom to which the Church bears witness. The King has taken his throne, and we, his ambassadors, have received our charge: reconcile this world to its King.

Resurrection serves as a message that God is no longer going to tolerate the savage, oppressive imperialism that our world thirsts for. Whereas penal substitutionary atonement theory places a violent act of retribution at the heart of the gospel, a resurrection-centered gospel, which St. Paul appears to adhere to, declares an end to violence and injustice and ushers in a kingdom where a loving, good, and just King sits on the throne.

As Scott J. Higgins, Director of Community Engagement at Baptist World Aid, puts it:

What if at the centre of the universe lay not an act of retribution but God’s declaration that he will break the cycle of violence and retribution by absorbing whatever evil we throw at him, forgiving and creating new life and a renewed world? Would it not change the way we frame faith, the way we speak of ourselves, the way we relate to God and engage with the world?

When ‘Penal Substitution’ rears its ugly head. . .

If you find yourself in a room full of theologians and/or pastors, you can probably gather a lot about their personalities and beliefs by asking one simple question: What Atonement Theory do you subscribe to?

Take this little gem for example:

For those of you who don’t know, John Piper is the controversial preacher, author, and founder of Desiring God Ministries. He’s known for making bold and scary claims about God and his wrath, and this tweet is no exception.

Piper subscribes to what is known as the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.

I should probably back up a bit because I bet half of you are wondering what an atonement theory even is.

For starters, let’s define atonement. Atonement is the sacrificial death of King Jesus on our behalf. When King Jesus died, he atoned for (made amends for) the sins of the world.

Now, atonement theory is essentially a stream of thought that attempts to answer a few questions simultaneously. First, why was the atonement necessary (beyond simply that mankind needed salvation from sin)? Second, what took place “behind the scenes,” as it were, when King Jesus died? Third, what is the nature of the transaction that took place at the time of King Jesus’ death? Fourth, how does his death reconcile humanity to God?

There is a wide range of atonement theories, and I don’t think any single one of them hits the mark completely, nor does any single theory miss the mark completely. I have very few misgivings about most theories, with the exception of one: Penal Substitution.

Piper subscribes to the Penal Substitution theory, and that subscription can be seen in statements like the above tweet.

Penal Substitution (or perhaps, more accurately, the popularized version of Penal Substitution accepted by the modern evangelical church, particularly the branches dominated by the “new calvinists”) presents the picture of a God who is angry with humanity, and in order satiate his anger, he must punish humanity. Instead of punishing humanity however, his Son steps in and takes on that punishment.

Is God so juvenile that he needs to be satiated? This theory gives off the image of God as an angry, drunken child abuser who’s so pissed off at his children that he has to beat them senseless.

And then the Piper quote.

God isn’t a child abuser. He’s a wife beater.

But this doesn’t line up with the God that I read about in the Bible. Humanity is not God’s enemy. Humanity is the very thing God is trying to rescue. He’s not angry with us; he’s angry with sin.

Sin is the universal invader, destroying the home that God built, tearing his children apart, and breaking apart his goodness.

God doesn’t have wrath against his wife. (If you didn’t catch the metaphor, his “wife” is the Church—the universal collection of believers.) He didn’t pour out any wrath on his Son Jesus either. Jesus came to pay the debt that we owe to our slaver. Sin owned us, and Jesus came to buy us back. But we owed sin our lives, and so Jesus came to pay with his life instead of ours.

Stories. . .

I love stories.

I believe that stories are the most powerful ways to convey truths. To be honest though, I’m not very good at crafting stories. I enjoy writing, even creatively, but for some reason I haven’t been able to tap into that ever so elusive great story.

That’s not to say that I haven’t written any stories. During my undergraduate years I wrote numerous stories for my short-story writing, novel writing, and script writing classes.

Maybe I exhausted all my awesome story ideas in college. Or maybe I’m just a lazy writer.

But I digress.

I bring up stories because I’ve begun seeing Scripture as a story. Not as a divine rulebook by which Christians are supposed to structure their lives. Certainly not as a message that contains the cypher through which we can unlock the mysteries of the future.

It is a narrative. A story, if you will, of a God who is trying to break into human history and reveal to his creation just how much he loves us.

He speaks our languages, he steps into our worlds, and he endures our hardships. This is a God who yearns to know and be known by his creation. It’s a beautiful tale. It’s a wonderful, compelling, and powerful story.

But here’s where things start to get a bit messy. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

I know. Let that settle for a bit. I realize I just screwed with your mind a bit. I probably made you uncomfortable, maybe even angry.

I’ll say it again because I probably live under the delusion that repeating myself will make you believe me more. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

It’s important that we understand this fact because it will help us alleviate a lot of the weird tensions that exist when we read the Bible. For example, there are confounding and inexplicable discrepancies—contradictions, even—among the four accounts of the Gospel.

That’s not even mentioning the frightening notion that God ordered the slaughter of an entire race of people (the Canaanites) for no other apparent reason than that they were occupying territory that he wanted to give to Israel.

This is perfect justification for Richard Dawkins’ scathing rebuke of God. This “God of love” needlessly commits genocide multiple times throughout the Old Testament.

Christians have quite a few ways of reconciling this atrocity. I’ll just list a few. (I have to thank Peter Enns and his book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It for most, if not all, of what’s in the next few paragraphs.)

One way Christians try to explain this is by appealing to God’s sovereignty. He’s God. We’re not. Stop questioning him.

But at the end of the day, is that really the kind of God you want to serve? Is that the kind of God you feel compelled to talk about? Is that good news to a dying world? Get under God’s good graces or he’ll be angry with you and send you to eternal damnation!

As Enns puts it, “This really isn’t a solution, anyway. It’s simply restating the problem: God orders his subjects to kill Canaanites. The question remains, “Why is God acting like Zeus or a fascist dictator?”

Enns continues, and so will we.

Another way Christians try to explain this is by comparing Canaanite slaughter to eternal damnation. Basically, why is killing Canaanites such a terrible thing when Jesus talks about throwing people into hell for all eternity?

Unfortunately, this doesn’t explain things either. As Enns and other scholars, writers, and theologians have pointed out, the modern Catholic and Evangelical idea of “hell” is rather outdated and has more in common with medieval notions of the afterlife than what Jesus was actually referring to.

Be that as it may, Jesus’ references to “hell” weren’t statements about “hell” at all. He was using the term Gehenna, which was a Greek word translated from the Hebrew phrase that means “Valley of Hinnom.”

The prophet Jeremiah (who’s my personal favorite prophet for some reason) talked about the Valley of Hinnom. Here’s what he had to say:

The people of Judah have done what displeases me, declares the Lord. They have corrupted the temple that bears my name by setting up their disgusting idols. They have built shrines at Topheth in the Ben-hinnom Valley to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, although I never commanded such a thing, nor did it ever cross my mind.

Did you catch that? The Valley of Hinnom was where the Israelites were sacrificing their children to foreign gods.

Later in that passage, Jeremiah pronounces judgment on those that committed child sacrifice. Their corpses would rot in the Valley of Hinnom.

Jesus knows his audience and uses this symbolism to describe what would happen to those who reject God’s Messiah. And that very thing happened less than a century after Jesus left this earth.

Anyway, we’re off topic now. In a nutshell, what Jesus was talking about when we think he’s talking about throwing people into hell is not at all what he’s really talking about.

Enns writes, “‘Hell’ doesn’t get God off the hook because it’s off topic.”

(There’s actually an incredibly beautiful story about Jesus’ interaction with the only “Canaanite” mentioned in the New Testament. It’s kind of relevant to this topic, but it will take us down a rabbit trail, so I’ll save it for another post.)

One final way (there are several more, but I’ll stop at three) that Christians try to justify Canaanite genocide (or any atrocity that’s attributed to God) is by saying something like, “We have to balance God’s darker side in Scripture with his merciful, gracious side.”

Umm. . . really? Would you say that about anyone else? Sure, your honor, that guy murdered people, but you have to balance that out with all the good he’s done. He donates to charity, cares for sick people, and recycles. In light of all that, can you really sentence him to a life in prison just for a few murders?

Here’s where things need to shift. (I promised in my previous post an avenue for reconciling “angry Old-Testament God” with “gracious New-Testament Jesus,” and I’m about to deliver, but I have a feeling you might not like it.)

Something we need to keep in mind when we read Scripture is that every word was written by someone who lived in a completely different world than we do and who spoke an entirely different language than we do.

And by language I don’t simply mean syntax, words, grammar, etc. I mean an entirely different way of communicating thoughts and ideas, prejudices and beliefs. The ancient Israelites did not recount events the way we do. They didn’t value the same things that we do.

In other words, it’s entirely likely (probable, in fact) that God never told the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites.

The Israelites were an ancient tribal people who lived among other ancient peoples. All the nations surrounding them had epic origin tales, and Israel had to tell their story.

I won’t go into all the historical-archeological detail, but just understand this: while these events aren’t historically accurate by our standards of accuracy, they are still 100% true. The truth is in what these stories are trying to convey.

Here’s what I see when I read these stories. I see a God who allows his children to tell their stories. I see a God who allows his character to evolve through the pages of the Bible because his creation is evolving in its understanding of who he is.

And then Jesus steps onto the scene. God is no longer simply the centerpiece of Israel’s mythology and religion. He is no longer bound by ancient storytelling and oral traditions. No, God has stepped into the world and transcended mere language. God has become more than just part of Israel’s story. He has become a Man. And that Man has become our King.

Our good, wise, loving, self-sacrificing, and perfect. . . King.

What God is like. . .

I’ve occasionally been accused of making a big deal out of small things. For example, as was evident from my ebook, I made a fairly big deal out of the Calvinism-vs-non-Calvinism thing.

There’s a reason for my “soapboxing” though. It responds to the question, “What is God like?”

Is God angry, vengeful, and misogynistic? Is he genocidal and vindictive?

If we take descriptions of him seriously (particularly those that paint him as the kind of God that would randomly wipe out an entire race of people simply because they were occupying the territory that he wanted to give to his chosen race), do we come to the conclusion that he’s the kind of God that is so angry at his people, his Son has to appease that anger by sacrificing himself on humanity’s behalf?

How then can we say with confidence that “God is love”?

Is the God we trust to rescue us the same God who ordered the killing of the entire population of Canaan, including the women and children?

Can we trust God to rescue us if he is also in absolute control of everything, including those events that hurt us, destroy us, and even cause us to commit unspeakable atrocities?

I would submit that no, we don’t trust a God who ordered the slaughter of entire people groups. We don’t put our faith in a God who dictates and determines the evils that exist in the world.

I’ll wait for my next post to provide thoughts regarding how to reconcile what we see about God in the Christian Old Testament with the type of Man we see in Jesus. But for now, let’s just take a moment to look at what Jesus shows us about God.

We see a God who heals the sick.

We see a God who feeds the hungry.

We see a God who welcomes children.

We see a God who spends time with the broken and marginalized.

Jesus’ death wasn’t to appease the anger of his Father, it was to show us just how far God was willing to go in order to rescue his children from captivity.

Jesus’ outstretched arms call out to us as he breathes his last, “This is how much I love you.”

That’s the kind of God who rescues us.

That is what God is like.

New eBook. . .

My essay that was once titled “An Irenic Rebuttal of the TULIP Soteriological Schema
 or
 Why I’m Not a Calvinist” has been renamed and converted into an eBook!

coverIt’s now called Deconstructing TULIP: A Former Calvinist Examines Calvinism’s Soteriology, and you can download it by clicking here.

Enjoy!

He is worthy. . .

I saw that there was a scroll in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. The scroll was written on the inside and the outside, and it was sealed with seven seals. I saw a strong angel announcing in a loud voice, “Does anybody deserve to open the scroll, to undo its seals?” And nobody in heaven or on the earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look at it. I burst into tears because it seemed that there was nobody who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside it. One of the elders, however, spoke to me. “Don’t cry,” he said. “Look! The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory! He can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

~ Revelation 5:1-5, TKNT

Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne. When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each held a harp and gold bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They took up a new song, saying,

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and open its seals,
because you were slain,
and by your blood
you purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language,
people, and nation.

You made them a kingdom and priests
to our God,
and they will rule on earth.”

~ Revelation 5:6-10, CEB

I think we’ve all said (or heard it said) at some point in our lives, “Jesus is worthy of my worship.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I sometimes find myself asking, “Why is he worthy of my worship?”

Is it simply because he is God, and that’s how it should be? We’re supposed to worship God, right? That’s just the way things are. We’re finite, and God is infinite. He’s infinitely powerful, infinitely just, and infinitely holy, so that in itself is motivation for worshiping him.

The book of Revelation is admittedly a very difficult book. And that’s okay. Apocalyptic literature is never easy to figure out, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t wrestle with it. Here’s what I (and by “I,” I mean, “theologians and scholars that I currently agree with”) think is going on here.

First question: What’s the deal with this scroll? What is it and why is it so important?

Answer: There are a ton of ideas about what this scroll could be, and many of them contradict each other, but here’s where I land currently. All of Scripture is the story of God’s interaction with the world. He created a home in which to dwell and placed his children into the world to be its overseers. But these children decided to move in their own direction apart from the Creator’s design and sent this world—themselves included—into a tailspin. God set into motion a plan through which he would restore everything to its rightful relationship with him. The scroll in Revelation 5 appears to be God’s plan to redeem and restore his creation to its rightful state of perfection, even unbroken relationship with him.

Second question: Why can’t God the Father open the scroll and unveil this plan of restoration?

Answer: Each of the seals that hold the scroll shut appear to be part of a series of judgments that will purify the earth and eliminate the wickedness that runs rampant upon it. No one in the throne room seems to be capable or qualified to break the seals and purify the earth. No one, that is, except the Lamb (Jesus). Why is the Lamb qualified? The text says, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain” (emphasis added). We can infer a few things from this qualifier. First, the Lamb entered the human condition. He suffered and died. That means that he can identify with us, and the judgments he pours out don’t come from someone who is detached from humanity, but someone who can sympathize and empathize with us in our plight. His purification of the earth is not arbitrary or unfeeling.

Second, he was motivated by love. John wrote that God is love, and what better way to show love than to give your life up for the object of your love? Jesus did that, and when he judges the earth, he is motivated by a self-giving love, the depths of which we cannot possibly fathom.

Third, death—and by extension, resurrection, particularly the resurrection of Jesus—is incredibly important. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the very thing that qualifies Christ is his self-sacrificing action on the cross. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes the following:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There’s a lot here, but we can infer that the operative principle when considering the Messiah’s worthiness is his incredibly humble attitude. Paul tells his audience that this attitude—this humility—is the attitude to adopt. This is why the Lamb is worthy to break the seals of the scroll and begin the process of purifying the earth and eliminating wickedness. This is why the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls and set in motion the restoration of all things.

Because he is uniquely humble.

Third question: How does any of this change how I worship God?

Answer: Maybe it doesn’t. But I would submit that the reason we worship God should be brought into examination. The Greek word translated in 5:9 as “to take” (“You are worthy to take the scroll”) is the same word translated in 5:12 as “to receive” (“Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and might, and honor, glory, and blessing”): λαβεῖν. The parallel shouldn’t be missed. The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll and open the seals in the same way that he is worthy to receive honor and glory. His humble, self-sacrificing death qualifies him.

This realization should change things. Think of the following exchange:

“Why do you worship Jesus?”

“I worship him because he is worthy.”

Where do you think it could go from there? I think we need to be cautious of an answer like this because it can quickly and subtly turn into something to the effect of, “I worship him for no reason that I am truly aware of or can accurately and/or succinctly articulate right now.” That can lead us to an artificial or unsustainable worship of Jesus that may last for a season, but that will falter because we can’t find a good reason to worship him.

Or consider this possible ensuing exchange:

“Why is he worthy?”

“Jesus is worthy because he is all-powerful, completely just, perfectly holy, and infinitely wise.”

Fair enough, but for starters, I think Scripture is far more explicit about why Jesus is worthy of our worship, and while those attributes are given in Scripture, I don’t think they’re used as motivation for worship (though I could be wrong about that; this is, after all, a blog and not a dissertation).

We become like that which we worship, and I believe that can be also be stated as this: we take on the attributes we hold most dear of that which we worship.

That’s why when we see people who obsess over God’s power, justice, and wrath, over and against God’s love, we often find people who are arrogant, dogmatic, and unloving. (Though ironically they often say things like, “I’m only saying this because I love you like Jesus loves you.” If you truly loved like Jesus loved, you’d be setting your agenda aside and laying your life down for the sake of that other person. . . but I digress.)

But when we see people who obsess over God’s love, we find people who always set aside their own comforts and ideologies for the sake of those around them. It’s almost as if they’ve taken ownership of the Messiah’s words: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”

So why is Jesus worthy of my worship?

He is worthy because he was slain. He is worthy because he emptied himself. He is worthy because without his death on the cross, the scroll would remain closed, and the restoration of creation would be unattainable.

“But thanks be to God, who in the Messiah constantly leads us in a triumphal procession and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of what it means to know him!”

Love and glory. . .

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

from the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what glorifying God looks like. How do we do this? What does it mean?

Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been pulled into these musings is that it’s been a recurring theme coming from those in the neo-reformed camp.

Glory.

“Give God the glory.”
“Don’t rob God of his glory.”
“God gets all the glory.”

There was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that wouldn’t go away when I considered the idea of glorifying God: God is self-serving, and interested only in his own glory. At some level, I suppose, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, if you’re the most powerful, magnificent, and other being in the universe, who else would you glorify?

But the deeper I dug into this thought, the more uncomfortable I became with it. Questions started to arise in my mind that I was afraid to address. Was God so insecure that he would demand (read: dictate, determine) the praise of his creatures? What exactly was it about him that needed to be glorified or magnified? Power? Holiness? Distinctness? Sovereignty?

Is that what set him apart from all other deities?

I began to grow weary of the pat answers that did little more than create an image of a god who was after nothing more than his own glory.

Then again, why shouldn’t he be? He is God after all.

But isn’t there something inside you that balks at the thought? Isn’t there something in all of this talk of glory that, despite all the logical consistencies of something like TULIP, makes God frightening? Or worse yet, unloving?

What if we took a step back and looked at what God is trying to communicate to us through the whole of Scripture? There seems to be a story unfolding that reveals a most unusual central character.

As he reflected on the story, St. John wrote, “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love” (emphasis added). So this is who God is.

Obsession with one’s own glory hardly looks like love, and if love is how God defines himself, shouldn’t that be how we see him?

I turn at this point to N. T. Wright, who said it far better than I could have said it myself.

“[John Piper] sees [God’s righteousness] as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love—God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God’s glory because God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply ‘for the sake of his own name.’ But ‘God’s righteousness’ is regularly invoked in Scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosynē theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God’s own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God’s creative, healing, restorative love. God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring, out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and ‘God’s righteousness’ is a way of saying, ‘Yes, and God will be true to that character.'”

This truth cannot be overstated.

God is, by definition, love. All other attributes and actions that God possesses and commits must conform to this standard. It is who he is, and that is what remains unchanged and unchangeable about him.

John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament wrote the following concerning 1 John 4:8: “‘God is love.’—This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

What then does this say of God’s glory?

John Piper famously said that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Not necessarily untrue, but if I understand John 13:34-35, 1 Corinthians 13:13, and Philippians 2:5-11 correctly, then this statement would be far truer if styled, “God is most glorified in us when we most explicitly model his self-giving love to those around us.”

God’s glory is found in his love.

Some thoughts on Noah. . .

PHqmdhBN3MUetx_1_mIt’s one of the season’s (if not the year’s) biggest blockbusters, and I took a few hours out of my busy schedule to sit down with this film. (I have to admit that as my friend Ken and I were walking into the theater, I came pretty close to changing my mind and standing in line for the midnight opening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but for the sake of conversation, I stuck with Noah.)

This blog post was originally going to be a review of the film, but given the controversy surrounding the movie, I decided to do some research and instead write more of a commentary on the film. I may write a full review at some point, but for now here’s my quickie review: Russell Crowe did a good job being Russell Crowe. He’s his usual emotionless self in this movie, but thankfully the cast around him was incredible. Of particular interest are Jennifer Connelly as Naameh, Noah’s wife, and Emma Watson as Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law. Theirs were some of the most disarming and jaw-dropping performances I’ve ever seen. We’ve all known Connelly is a talented actress, but she stood out in a big way this time. The surprise to me was Watson’s performance. I’m a Harry Potter fan, and I found it a bit difficult at first to divorce her from Hermione Granger, but it didn’t take long for her to show off just how good an actress she is. Even without the mind-blowing special effects, this film would be worth it simply for those two performances.

Okay, now that my review is over, let’s dive into the meat of this post.

There are several streams of thought regarding this movie. One is the traditional evangelical approach which falls just short of boycotting this film for no reason other than that they “heard” the movie is very “unbiblical.” My problem with this approach is multifaceted. First, I’m never a fan of boycotting. It sends a terrible message, and in many cases it gives off an air of ignorance. Second, I think it would be wise to gain firsthand knowledge of the material you’re attacking before making your assault. You may find yourself laying down friendly fire if you don’t. Third, I think we should ask ourselves, “How well do I actually know the biblical account of ‘Noah and the Flood’?” After watching the movie, I found myself returning to the Scriptures to do some fact-checking, and I was quite surprised at what I found (and didn’t find) in the text.

Another stream of thought coming from some of the “liberal” camps essentially views this movie as a kind of midrash aggada—a form of rabbinical storytelling that involves interpreting Scripture passages by “filling in the blanks,” as it were—from the director Darren Aronofsky (who, by the way, is not an atheist as many believed that he claimed to be) given his Jewish heritage. Aronofsky is a master storyteller who is just as much a preacher as he is a filmmaker. Just look at some of his previous films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream.

The third stream of thought that I see emerging is that Aronofsky’s Noah is not based on the story found in the Judaic Torah or the Christian Pentateuch. Rather, this stream of thought sees the Gnostic Noah account being displayed in this film. Theologian Brian Mattson wrote, “This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources.” There are a number of Christians who read his posts and found his interpretation compelling, especially given his knowledge of the subject matter. He claims that because Aronofsky’s Noah is a Gnostic retelling, the movie flips the roles of God and Satan, and, using the snakeskin shed by the Serpent in Eden as a vehicle for this characterization, claims that the “Creator” is really the evil deity in Gnosticism and that the Serpent is really God in disguise (that was a paraphrase of Mattson’s conclusion on the matter, but it’s essentially what he’s getting at). The problem with his argumentation is that while Kabbalah and Gnostics agree in a number of ways, there are some crucial inconsistencies that render his interpretation invalid.

The argument makes sense on some level when you think about it. Aronofsky’s first full-length feature, Pi, betrayed a fascination with Kabbalah. But while he may have drawn from Kabbalah’s understanding of the story of Noah, it’s pretty clear that his primary source material was the ancient Judaic retelling of the story (the one accepted by most Christians). Also, Aronofsky doesn’t appear to exhibit much interest in Gnosticism or even the Gnostics.

To be sure, there are likely many key elements of Kabbalist tradition found throughout the film (references to Zohar, Adam and Eve’s luminescence, humanity’s division into the evil descendants of Cain and the righteous descendants of Seth, fallen angels who can be redeemed, etc.), but these elements aren’t exclusively Kabbalistic. In fact, (with the exception of the Zohar reference) these supposedly “exclusively Kabbalist” elements are found in Judeo-Christian history as well.

But let me try to address some of the more basic concerns Christians might have with the movie, apart from any Gnostic or Kabbalist references.

First, the character of Noah. In this movie, Noah is depicted as a deeply conflicted man. As the story progresses, he becomes even more extreme and zealous to the point of betraying his own family. I was at first uncomfortable with this, but when I went back to the story as found in the Bible, I found no descriptions of Noah’s personality at all. The Bible describes him as a righteous man, but “righteous” in this context doesn’t mean “good.” It simply means that he practiced justice and mercy. This description leaves much to the imagination, and seems to have been placed there simply to set Noah apart from the morally corrupt around him. The Noah character found in this movie is completely human—flawed, broken, and stubborn. He clings to what he believes God’s message is, even when confronted with evidence that he might have misinterpreted God’s will. Sound familiar? Russell Crowe’s Noah reminded me a little bit of myself in some very disturbing ways (minus the notable lack of emotional expression).

Second, the Watchers. Some have said they’re loosely based on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:1-4. Unfortunately, that doesn’t go very far in explaining these bizarre creatures. What’s more likely is that Aronofsky took from the Book of Enoch (an ancient Jewish text that was considered part of the canon of Scripture by some early church fathers like Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian), which goes into greater detail about the Watchers. According to the Book of Enoch, the Watchers were angels that had been sent to earth to look after humanity after Adam’s fall, but after being around humans for a while, they began to have sexual relations with human women. The result of these unions were the Nephilim.

Aronofsky mercifully leaves out the details about fallen angels having sex with humans, but he portrays these angels as having the ability to return to righteousness and glory. Some Christians would take issue with that, as nowhere in Scripture does it say that fallen angels can be redeemed. But even within Christianity, a debate raged on regarding the permanence of these angels’ fall from God’s mercy. St. Gregory of Nyssa (one of the earliest promoters of the doctrine of a triune God) expressed a belief that even Satan himself would repent and be reconciled to God!

I think it’s worth noting here that Aronofsky appears to be less interested in mainline and evangelical interpretations of Genesis than he is in ancient-Hebrew and first-through-third-century Christian interpretations. There are a lot of things about this movie that seem strange, but upon further investigation, actually make sense in that historical context. More recent historical discoveries and theological musings refute many of these ideas, but in the rich, diverse histories of Judaism and Christianity, the ideas Aronofsky purports may be odd (and in some cases, just plain wrong), but they aren’t foreign to these religions’ histories.

(I don’t know where Aronofsky got the idea to depict the Watchers as rock giants, but I couldn’t help but think of the Gorignak from Galaxy Quest whenever the Watchers were on screen.)

Third, Adam and Eve’s luminescence. I hesitate to even mention this one because it seems trite that Christians would be bothered by it, but someone in another blog used it as fodder for for his argument that this movie is “unbiblical,” so I decided to bring it up. It’s an argument easily refuted by reminding ourselves that luminescence is a theme that’s seen throughout Scripture, from Moses’ encounters with God (he’s described as radiating in Exodus 34) to Christ’s transfiguration in Matthew 17. Jesus even says in Matthew 13 that “the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.” Given that information, it’s not such a stretch to think that Adam and Eve radiated light prior to eating the fruit.

Fourth, environmentalism as the primary theme of the movie. Much has been said about how this movie depicts the Creator as wanting to destroy mankind because of how they mistreat creation. While that’s an element of why the Creator sends the flood, it’s pretty clear in the film that mankind’s wickedness overall, not just their poor stewardship of the earth, is the reason the flood is on its way. In a scene where Noah is walking among the descendants of Cain, people are trading girls for food, killing for fun, and exhibit nothing but an overt willingness to satiate their own basest desires.

Additionally, Noah’s own error involves environmentalism. He misinterprets God’s message thinking that humanity has no place in the world. In fact, when he recounts the story of creation to his family, he leaves out (or minimizes, I can’t remember which) the fact that humanity was created in God’s image. [SPOILERS AHEAD. Highlight the text to reveal.] Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, when he tells Ham the story of creation, makes a point to emphasize the fact that humanity was made in God’s image. He concludes that that means humans should dominate the earth and possess the right to exploit all of its resources with no regard to good stewardship. But at the end of the movie, when Noah comes to terms with his mistakes, he retells the creation story. This time he doesn’t leave out the point about being made in God’s image, but unlike Tubal-Cain’s rendition of the story, Noah concludes that as image-bearers we don’t have a right so much as a responsibility to properly care for the earth. Admittedly, environmentalism is a fairly heavy-handed theme throughout the movie, particularly at the end, but it doesn’t go so far as to run contrary to what Scripture teaches us about stewardship. My primary concern here is that the film fails to acknowledge humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. It appears that the best notion isn’t Noah’s idea that the earth is better off without humanity, nor is it Tubal-Cain’s belief that creation exists to serve man. Instead, the film presents a sort of peaceful coexistence between humans and the earth as being the best option. It’s almost as if the film were trying to portray God as a Master Gardener with humans as his gardening tools rather than God as a Father with the earth as a gift to his children. Both ideas are better options than the movie’s two “bad” options, but only the latter works as a theme seen in Scripture.

Fifth, the snakeskin. I’ll admit, I was pretty confused by the snakeskin metaphor in the film. Movie blogger Ryan Holt shed some light (pun not intended) on the snakeskin motif in his post about the movie:

When the film gives us glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the snake originally glows like Adam and Eve, only to shed its luminous skin and become a dark black. The visual metaphor seems clear; the serpent abandons the glory of creation to become a creature of evil, and humanity soon follows after it. So the snakeskin reminds Noah and his family of the Eden that was lost, a testament to creation’s original perfection.

Similarly, in his review of the movie in the National Catholic Register (a review that I highly recommend, by the way), Steven D. Greydanus wrote the following:

The serpent is connected with one of the film’s odder bits: a snakeskin, shed in Eden by the serpent, preserved as a family heirloom by the righteous line of Seth and passed down to Noah by his father. Doesn’t the snakeskin represent evil? Not necessarily. The serpent was created good and then shed that goodness to become the tempter. The skin it wore when God created it is not a token of evil, but of original goodness — and thus a true relic of paradise and a token that evil is always a corruption of goodness, never a thing unto itself.

* * * * * *

If you’re looking for “biblical accuracy,” you don’t have to look very far. Aronofsky claimed that Noah is the “least biblical biblical film ever made,” but I think that really depends on your understanding of the term biblical. Aronofsky made that statement in response to scores the film received after different versions of the film were presented to test audiences. I’m not sure where the following story came from, but I heard a rumor that a predominantly Christian test audience had asked for the removal of the scene wherein Noah was depicted as a drunkard because they believed the Bible didn’t portray Noah in such a way. I hope that’s not a true story, but if it is, it only goes to show how biblically illiterate many Christians are.

I understand people’s hesitance in seeing this movie. It’s puzzling in a number of ways. It forces you to think and question your preconceived notions about the beginning of Genesis. But it’s probably the most “biblically accurate biblical movie” I’ve ever seen. Yes, it takes some liberties, but all movies do. You may not believe this, but I’ll say it anyway, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah contains fewer extra-biblical artistic liberties than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (did you know that Gibson’s primary source material wasn’t the writings of the four Evangelists, but those of Anne Catherine Emmerich?).

A few weeks ago I overheard a conservative talk radio show wherein the host exhibited anger over the fact that Noah would replace the Bible (referencing the adage, “[A movie] is the only Bible some people will ever read”). I heartily disagree with him. Does anyone recall the sudden boost in readership of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when those movies hit theaters? While I don’t think we’re going to see massive sales of the movie edition of the book of Genesis, this movie will likely prompt its viewers to read the account of the flood in Scripture (which is a mere four chapters in the Bible), and that’s not such a bad thing.

The movie is full of incredible special effects and great action sequences, has some of the best acting from Connelly and Watson that I’ve ever seen, is well written and directed, and is incredibly exciting to watch. I think Noah is the perfect film to introduce people to the Bible.

* * * * * *

Please be aware that while I would recommend that people check this movie out, it’s not for kids. The tone is very dark, the sin that causes the Creator to send the flood is presented pretty graphically, and there are themes throughout that could be difficult for children to grasp. It pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating.

The Seven Pillars of Family Ministry. . .

I’ve been reading the book Dreaming of More for the Next Generation by Michelle Anthony, and in the book she describes what she refers to as the “seven pillars of family ministry.” I wanted to share them with you here because they serve as “Aha” moments in my ministry journey.

1. Family is Primary. The purpose of the church ministry is to walk alongside and equip families to disciple their children. If I’m taking seriously the charge that Paul gave in Ephesians 4:11-13, and I believe that the message to parents in Deuteronomy 6 is a call for them to be the primary disciplers of their children, this ministry should be equipping and training our parents with the same intentionality that we train and equip our teachers, mentors, and leaders.

2. Spiritual Formation is our Goal. Paul’s desire for the church in Galatia was that Christ be “formed in” them. What did he mean by this? His desire for this church wasn’t that they learn the facts of their faith—however important those facts may be. Rather, his goal was that they look more and more like Jesus. He wrote that “all the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s tempting to substitute spiritual formation with communicating information. We can very easily fall into the trap of making our ministry about facts, head knowledge, and measurables. I’m guilty of this all the time. “If children and families learn information, we may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back. But maybe we shouldn’t. Children may memorize Bible verses. They may know how many stones David used to kill Goliath. It’s good, but it’s not enough.”

It’s also tempting to make ministry about moral training. We can fall into the trap of trying to teach kids what it looks like to be a good Christian. Good behavior looks so much like faith in action. What if instead, we focused on training families on allowing the Holy Spirit to transform their lives?

Jesus doesn’t want people who are well behaved. He wants people of faith (see Luke 17). That’s much more difficult, but it’s more lasting, and it’s what will end up storming the gates of hell.

3. The Holy Spirit is the Teacher. Francis Chan wrote in his book Forgotten God that “the Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be.” There’s nothing wrong with the term “Sunday School Teacher,” but something can be taken away with that title. I wonder if instead, we gave God the role of “teacher,” and took on the roles of leaders, mentors, and storytellers? After all, in John’s account of the Gospel, he wrote that the Spirit of God is our Counselor, our Comforter, and our Teacher.

Imagine with me for a moment: what if we had students and children who worshiped God “from the inside out” (I love that song, by the way; it’s one of my favorites) “compelled by the Spirit—not through behaving in expected or mandated ways, but through seeing worship as a lifestyle instead of as a moment or event”? What if they fully realized their Spirit-given abilities to herald and exhibit the Kingdom attributes of love, grace, justice, forgiveness? What if they were able to discern God’s voice speaking to them and learn to obey that voice, relying on the Spirit’s power alone for their strength?

4. Scripture is our Authority. Our culture denies the idea that there can be concrete truths. My lead pastor often points out that truth is necessarily exclusive. If something is true, it automatically denounces anything that contradicts it as false. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a natural and obvious thing. If the truth is that I’m traveling north, then by saying I’m traveling south when I’m doing the exact opposite means that my statement is false.

Without truth, people are lost. Truth acts as a compass—morally, experientially, emotionally. As Christians, our compass is Scripture, and it needs to permeate our being otherwise we’re lost. Our task isn’t simply to teach kids about God’s Word, but rather show them how to investigate it for themselves.

Michelle Anthony shares this story in her book:

“Several years ago I was leading a group of elementary students through the book of James. At the conclusion of our eight-week study together, I was compelled by this idea of wanting them to flex their faith muscles. I didn’t plan a new study right away. I wanted to take our next time together to explore what could be next. The kids arrived and sat down as usual to hear the next Bible study, but this time there was none.

“Instead I asked them, ‘Children, how can you put your faith into action? You’ve heard these things from God’s Word for the past eight weeks. You’ve learned that God wants us to not just be ‘hearers’ of His Word, but ‘doers’ also. So what are you going to do about what you’ve heard?’. . . .”

Dr. Anthony then describes the awkward silence and her desire to validate her teaching by offering suggestions that the kids could just say “yes” to. She continues her story.

I didn’t give in. At this point, my faith was hanging in the balance as much as theirs was. ‘What are you going to do now that you have heard the words of God and how He wants us to live?’ It felt like an eternity in waiting. I was uncomfortable. My leaders were uncomfortable. The kids were. . . well, bored.

“But then one courageous hand rose in the back. The young girl said, ‘We could help the homeless people.’ My heat leapt! ‘Yes, we could do that! What else could we do to put our faith into action?’ I asked. Soon more children began to chime in with ideas that ranged from eliminating global hunger to knitting sweaters for cold dogs.”

Where do you think this faith that manifested in action ideas and steps came from? It was rooted in the truth of God’s Word.

John Wesley posited that there are four ways that God reveals Himself to us. Experience: “One thing I know; I was blind, but now I see.” Reason: Wesley often stated that without Spirit-given reason we cannot understand the essential truths of Scripture. Tradition: While he recognized the weaknesses inherent in tradition, he stated “Do not undervalue traditional evidence. Let it have its place and its due honour.” Scripture: “Wesley insisted that scripture is the first authority and contains the only measure whereby all other truth is tested. It was delivered by authors who were divinely inspired. It is a rule sufficient of itself. It neither needs, nor is capable of, any further addition.”

Scripture is of utmost importance to us and its truth is that which guides, yea distills all other evidences of God’s revelation to us. Our goal is to train children to see all of life through the lens of Scripture, knowing that while our interpretation may inform our approach, God always speaks first and foremost to us through His Word.

5. The Big God Story. This pillar is connected to the previous pillar in that to know the Big God Story we need to know Scripture.

Anthony writes:

“Because we’ve heard the story so many times, we might be tempted to gloss over the amazement that it’s all really true. God really did promise to send the Redeemer, He really kept the promise alive throughout history, He really sent His Son to die for us, and He really redeemed us from our sin because He really loves us that much! The Big God Story is amazing—and true! and sometimes it takes a new believer—a child—to remind us how shocking it truly is.”

It’s tempting to teach the Bible in isolated “stories” with little or no context to the whole. It goes back to the second pillar. Randy Frazee calls this “the Lower Story”—the biblical information found in the smaller stories, and we often teach “the Lower Story” at the expense of “the Upper Story”—the story of redemption, restoration, and relationship. This story is the one that transforms, rather than simply informing.

While the Bible isn’t all about Jesus, all of the Bible points to Jesus, and the narrative—much like a serialized TV show—beckons us to its climax—the arrival of the Messiah. When approached episodically, the Bible loses its fervor. But when we tell the Big God Story serially (the “to-be-continued” approach), children want to know what happens next and wait with baited breath to discover the all-important climax—Messiah has come!

The Big God Story, while all about God and His desire to be in a relationship with His image-bearing creation, draws us into its narrative. We are characters in this story, and it’s important to share that truth with children. They need to know that they are born because God wants them and made them to look like Him, and that life is all about knowing Him and loving Him because He loves them.

Sadly, culture (and the Church, to many degrees) teaches children that life is “all about me.” God exists to meet my needs and save me because the story centers on me. We need to help children understand that their part in the story is to know and love the Main Character.

Which leads me to Pillar Six.

6. God is Central. Worship is about growing closer to Him, experiencing His presence, getting to know Him. When we spend time remembering and celebrating what God has done through responding, worshiping, even just living, we are reminded that He is at the center of everything. Austin Fischer wrote that we are all “little black holes” trying to use our gravity to suck life into ourselves. Instead, we should revolve around the gravity of God; therein lies our sole satisfaction. As children discover this truth, their lives can be centered and they have a more compelling story to tell—and to be a part of.

7. Ministry Support. If you know me at all, you know that I love ice hockey. It’s an incredible sport that moves at frightening speeds, requiring an insane amount of coordination, not just on the part of the individual player, but on the part of the whole team. All five skaters need to be in sync and on the same page at every moment. The wingers need to instinctively know where the centerman is and vice-versa. The defensemen need to “feel” each other on the ice. The forwards and defensemen need to see each other, even without seeing each other.

Ministry should be the same. Parents and leaders should support each other. After all, they’re on the same team. They have the same goal: to train children to become aggressive followers of Jesus who are heralding His love for the world. Why shouldn’t we all work together?

Admittedly, I don’t know what that looks like practically, but I’ve got some ideas.

One of the beautiful things about ice hockey is that, unlike any other sport, after someone scores a goal, all five skaters huddle up and celebrate the goal together, acknowledging that every skater on the ice played an integral part in that goal.

Falling. . .

Ice-Skating-StopFor those of you who don’t know me, I love ice skating. It’s one of those things that helps me clear my mind, gets my blood pumping, and provides an escape from the tumult of life.

I don’t really remember a time when I couldn’t skate fairly proficiently; I learned to skate when I was really young, and continued skating all through middle school and high school. When I go skating, I like to watch people of varying proficiencies, and I notice something: not everyone has what it takes to become a competent ice skater. It’s not that I doubt people’s ability to grasp the necessary skills for skating, it’s that there’s one thing good ice skaters know almost instinctively that others don’t: everyone falls.

Two things manifest when someone learning to skate stumbles on this truth. The first is that they overcome their fear of falling. Fear of falling stems from a fear of being embarrassed and from a fear of the pain, but when you realize that everyone falls, you realize that no one’s laughing at you for falling and that most people aren’t severely injured when they fall.

The second is that they begin to give themselves grace for each fall. Each fall is an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. Whenever I’m teaching someone how to skate, I almost always tell them to not be afraid to fall. It will happen, and the sooner a skater learns that it’s okay to fall, the faster they’ll progress. And as they get better, they fall less and less.

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to meet Megan Fate Marshman and hear her speak at a conference. During one of her talks she had everyone in the room turn to their neighbor and say, “I’m so glad. . . you’re as messed up as I am.” We all fall. Some fall less than others, but seem unable to progress in life. I think that’s because they haven’t learned that falling is okay; everyone falls. Some seem to fall pretty often, but they’re learning, and eventually they’ll fall less often.

Some have seemingly stopped falling altogether and they’re helping pick others up when they fall. We’ll all get there someday, but I really believe that in order to get there, we have to get over our fear of falling and understand that everyone falls. That doesn’t mean we’re supposed to fall; falling is indeed painful, and if we don’t get to the point where we stop falling every time we try to move, we’ll end up a bruise-covered mess. But falling is a necessary part of learning.

I’ve found myself falling on the ice again. I’m working towards learning to play hockey, and in order to do that I need to pick up a few more skills on my skates. As I try to learn these new skills I’m again on my butt pretty often. But that’s part of learning.

I pray that we can all give ourselves some grace as we walk through life making mistakes and by extension give each other grace as well. That’s what community in Jesus should be about.