Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Problems with Christus Victor

The following are some points of conflict I have with the Christus Victor atonement theory but not with the theory itself, rather with the theory as advertised. C-V to my mind, has a firm place in Christian thought, a facet in a multifaceted idea, a helpful view on a subject that we will never fully understand, a further approximation to assist us to understand what God has done for us. But what follows is what troubles me in its mode of presentation. I might be accused of laying it on thick, but I would counter that I'm not the only one.
  • Exclusivity: Instead of, "Here's a beautiful new/ancient way to look at atonement. Doesn't this make it richer?" we hear "Aha! we've discovered the true way. Free yourself from the evils of any other theory and embrace the truth!" The problem with this is that we are talking about something that is difficult to see from any distance because it's being done to us. Have some humility and don't be so sure you know how it works. Any of a number of pictures are needed to approximate the best understanding.
  • Mono-dimensionality: 1) To obviate the need for the legal aspects of atonement, Sin is explained away as merely one thing: variously, that which separates us from God, how we wound ourselves, how we reject the love of God. 2) God's person is portrayed only as Father, to the exclusion of Creator, King, Judge, etc. 3) God's essence is portrayed as only love, meaning only love in the sense that we would judge all his actions to be love, ruling out anything that we would not understand that way. Which brings us to the next point...
  • Co-Adulthood with God: We reserve the right to rule on any item in the written record or in the opposite theory as being outside of what a "God of Love" would do. It seems to me somewhat sophomoric. It's like teenage kids judging their Dad for what they can not understand. It's like my toddlers crying and clinging to me on the way out the door to work because they couldn't understand why a "Dad of Love" would leave them. My context is simply larger than theirs. Unless I work, they have no food or shelter. I am motivated by love and they can not grasp it although they benefit by it. How can we even guess at God's larger context? It's orders of magnitude greater than the difference between mine and my kids.
  • Moral Squeamishness: Much of what drives people to choose C-V above for example P-S (penal substitution) is horrification at the thought of God executing judgement on his own Son on our behalf. "Child abuse!" is the cry! This is a bit of a straw man, though. Jesus was in on the plot, too, don't you know? If sin was such a big problem that it required the sacrifice of the God of the Universe to deal with it, you may be sure that all of that God knew his own mind. Horrification is also directed at the whole idea of a deserved punishment. How could a God of Love (Eye roll!) allow such a thing to be?
  • Chronological snobbery: This label I borrow from C. S. Lewis who used it to cast into disrepute arguments for theories advanced on the basis of their modernity. In the case of Christus Victor, it's the inverse. Precisely because of its supposed ancientry, (it's oh so Patristic, don't you know) it's touted as the one true atonement theory. Actually when a theory was first thought of adds precisely nothing to its veracity or viability.
  • Disdain for the Rules of the Game: God, we are told, doesn't need Christ's sacrifice to forgive us. He can simply forgive us at his whim, as Christ seems to do for the paralytic lowered down to him through the roof. Besides the obvious question of why he didn't then simply forgive and restore us in the Garden, instead of condemning us to millennia of suffering, uncertainty and death, what comes to mind is, why, if God can be so arbitrary, is the story of Christ's coming so full of almost ceremonial elements like fulfilled prophecy and symbolic acts? Why was it done, as the Elephant's Child put it, just so? What's the whole "in the fulness of time" thing, if not evidence that there was a particular way that it had to be done. Oh no! But what about God's omnipotent forgiving power? I suggest that God really is subject to the justice he has built into the universe because to abrogate it, is to unmake the world.
  • Quick to Blame God: Well no, not really. But quick to take on the unjust accusations hurled at the Redemption story by the world (Not Fair! Not Fair!) and validate them by responding that God isn't really like that -- and by bending the story around the perceived slight. Presented with the same accusations, Paul for example, would probably instead respond that they come from those who can't endure sound doctrine. I'm thinking specifically of the meme where in the familiar picture of Jesus knocking at the door, he is offering to save those on the other side from what he's going to do to them if they don't open. This was advanced in a recent discussion on Facebook against P-S. Ludicrous. Because we have shut ourselves off to the simple idea that if you sin you are actually guilty and condemned, we are unable to receive the remedy to it and worse, accuse the one who offers himself on our behalf of starting the whole thing himself in some kind of abusive cycle. To which, I contend as above that we might just as well say he's "guilty" of creating the world.
  • Dismissive of Slights Against God: Mercy becomes a smoke screen. Because we understand that his loving response to our offences is always mercy (and I agree that it is!) the offences are discounted. But that is a trap. God the Creator does not deserve to have his beloved creation rebel. God the Redeemer does not deserve to have his redemption ignored. God the Father does not deserve to see his children reject his love. These are catastrophic and universal slights with an incalculable penalty. Of which, as John puts it, we are condemned already. So the only hope is to throw ourselves on his mercy, And by this we admit our fault and are proper candidates for mercy, for no one ever could have mercy on the virtuous, as they, whoever they are, really deserve the benefits that come to them.
  • Uncharitable to those of Other Views: Christian greats of the past who held staunchly to opposing views of Atonement are held up to ridicule. Jonathan Edwards, is one that comes to mind. Yes, "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" is offensive to today's sensibilities, but it wasn't offensive to those who heard it. They were, as Luke puts it, "cut to the heart."  Also, derision seems heaped on those who hold opposing views, for if you follow an "abusive and judgemental" God, you must also have adopted his traits. To which one can only point to millions of elderly Christians now alive who are anything but abusive and judgemental but who hold by ideas of atonement which seem to you repugnant.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Problematic Idea of "Five-Fold Ministry"

Just saw what might be good news on my Facebook feed about a revival here on this side of the North American Continent. They're starting to call it the rumble in the Northwest. I hope there is real stuff happening. But reading the news about it turned up something else interesting. The revival is being associated with something called the New Apostolic Reformation. Interesting. So I looked if up and found that actually, although I wasn't aware of the label, I do know something about this, since for a while I was in a church which was into this.

The New Apostolic Reformation centres around a reading of Ephesians 4:11 that states that for the church to be truly complete, all of the functions mentioned in the passage have to be present -- the Five-Fold Ministry (don't forget the capitals.) Apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors, and teachers. And along with the idea comes a narrative. And it's the narrative that gives the idea its power. It goes something like this. After the time of its infancy, the church lost its power possibly because they left a God-given structure and opted for a politically supported hierarchy of priests. (or something like that) At any rate the Five-Fold Ministry was lost to the church. But since that time God has been restoring to the church the different offices (pastors, teachers, prophets etc.) And here we are directed to different points of time in the history of the charismatic movement as exemplary of the restoration of this or that office. Proof positive of a divine plan. The whole thing culminates in the recent restoration of apostles among us.

And so now we can really get this party started, so to speak, because each of the offices will equip the body of Christ in their own special way. And that sounds fine enough. The pastors and teachers will shepherd and inform. The prophets and evangelists will stir up speaking from God and reaching out to the world. And the apostles? Well there's the really big problem. What are the apostles going to do? I've heard that they inspire the church to new things. But that isn't what really is about is it? Because if there's one impression of what apostles did in the early church, its that when push came to shove, they ruled.

But let's walk backwards from the point of ruling, and looking at Paul, (our most prominent example of an apostolic ruler) let us understand how it was that he ruled (gave direction, admonishment) all of the churches that he wrote to. The picture simplifies itself then. Thing is, most of them, he himself planted. Of course he's going to watch over them and try to keep them on the right track. And there's crux of the issue. Apostolic authority did not reside in the office of the apostle. Rather it flowed from the apostle doing his function, which was to plant churches. It's only later that people started to equate apostleship with rule.

A humorous side note: Some would-be apostles like to try to have it both ways (humble and vain.) "No we're not really Capital A Apostles. We're small a apostles." This is a laugh because the original text of the New Testament was written in uncial letters. Uncials are all the same case. The usage of capitals came later. Big A or little a, if you claim apostleship, you know what you've got to do. Apply to your nearest mission board and get out of here.

Because, you see, the word apostle (sent one) is synonymous with missionary (sent one.) It is not, as some would have it, synonymous with 'benevolent dictator for life.' I think this might disappoint some of the new 'apostles' that have cropped up, but, truthfully, if they want the term to apply to them, they have to leave here and plant churches in other cultures. Because Eph 4:11 is not the only place that apostles shows up in a list. In I Cor 12:28, the phrasing is different. "First apostles, second prophets..." Suddenly we have not a five fold ministry, but a multi stage ministry. And "first apostles" makes a heck of lot of sense in that context. Who else to start a work in any location but the apostles? Furthermore, the fact that one list is a chronology, makes a really good case for the similar other list being a chronology, too.

Another weakness of the restoration narrative is that it's an attempt, not to progress as the church, "brighter and brighter till the full day," nor surpass the early church and do "greater works" than Jesus -- as he promised-- but to look back to the good old days and try to be the church in the New Testament. Do people really have the idea that everything in the New Testament is a template? That every work-in-progress solution found in the NT to the problems of church polity against the backdrop of the Graeco-Roman world is God's design for the church forever?

So go ahead and enjoy the Lord's presence as he is apparently visiting the North West. Love him and follow him with all your heart. But don't necessarily buy into the whole Five-Fold/New Apostolic thing. Unless God is telling you to. Because you'll need more authority behind the choice than a misread passage...

Friday, April 22, 2016

Seeing in Stereo

 So what's the central fact of our existence? Is it that we are created? Being a creation implies total ownership of the creation by the Creator and total freedom to the Creator to adjust his creation to serve his purposes better. It carries with it 100% obligation on our part to fulfil our Creator's purposes for us and 0% obligation on his part to answer to us for anything he does.  Any wilful deviation from his purposes is a cosmic fault. Sounds so dire, doesn't it. But it's not. It's simply what being his creation means.

Or is the central fact that we are loved? Through love we find that a large portion of his purposes are focused on blessing us and broadening, not narrowing our scope. Through love we find that the cosmic fault has been mended at immense personal cost to our Creator. Through love we find that somehow this Being, of a so much higher order than ourselves, is ever interested in relationship with us personally, as families, tribes, churches, communities, nations, and the whole world, and not merely pleased to watch, "from a distance" he has come to be present among us. It all amazes us and causes us to return his love.

So much talk these days focuses on the second "central fact" that I find myself ever in defence of the first, yet if I had found myself in a more judgemental age, I would have become the irritating advocate of love. But it's not so much the focus that's the issue. It's the apparent embarrassment we have with the first fact that bothers me.

My take is that these two are like separate frames of the same stereo view. Only if we keep both eyes open do we see in three dimensions. If we focus on one over the other, our view is distorted and flat. Stark dichotomy ensues. God the Judge vs. God the Lover. Law vs. Grace. Pick your poison and choose your side. Complementary pairs become theological battle lines.

"He who has been forgiven much loves much" is a statement that sees in stereo. Awareness of the need to be forgiven proceeds from the awareness of the depth of the offence against the just claims of the Creator. He is not arbitrarily and vindictively enforcing his claims. The claims are inescapable because they are inherent in being his creation. Offence against them is of incalculable harm; to us, to our loved ones, to the whole universe. And the costly healing of this harm by the one who had no obligation to us, rightly produces a love response in us. But outside of this understanding, love because of received mercy is irrelevant, because we just have no idea of what forgiveness means or what the mercy cost.

Yes this how it looks from my position in the Amphitheature, but it's as valid as your view.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Amphitheatre: Why Nobody Bats 1.000 in Christian Theology

Here's a picture that's been on my heart for a long time and I'm really sure that it's a good representation of our corporate attempt to adequately articulate and describe what we believe about the Christian faith. And if this inspires anyone to actually create it visually I'd welcome that. But at this time, as I can't really be doing that myself, I will try to put into words.

Start with a stage in a large semicircular format. The stage has two features. The rear of the stage, in a wide sweeping curve, is a series of pictures representing the history and writings of the Old Testament. In the centre of the stage is a large multi-faceted crystaline structure that represents, not the New Testament, but what some term the Christ Event. The Christ Event may be slowly turning, it may be not, but certainly the facets as you gaze on them from whatever side obscure what is visible from some other angle. And maybe as you gaze on the Christ event from a certain angle it obscures to the point of blotting out some of the Old Testament behind it. The visible panels of the Old Testament become part of the whole picture that you see so that wherever you are there is a whole and possibly satisfying picture that differs from what is seen from the other parts of the amphitheatre.

The other feature of the place is the seating. The seating is also semi-circular. In the front rows are the writers of the New Testament. They got first crack at articulating the meaning of what they experienced. But even they saw things from a slightly different angle from each other. And here I diverge somewhat from tradition and say that in this enterprise of discovering 'what it all means,' we are their equals. We are indebted to them for reporting on the Christ Event and starting the discussion, but the discussion goes on because the Holy Spirit is still with us and we are still exploring.

The rows in the seating have been gradually filling up: not as fast as the church grows, mind you; many Christians hardly ever visit this amphitheatre. Theology as such is just not a pursuit for most and that is worth remembering for those for whom it is a passion. It would have made sense for the place to fill up in a linear fashion with people filing in and filling it up row by row. But such is not the case. Camps have formed in different areas of the seating, populated by people of similar viewpoints who like the view best from this or that location. Because the seats also represent a spectrum of culture and experience and people of certain cultures and experiences will gravitate to what they are the most comfortable with.

And there is a ludicrous, though perhaps not unnatural, side effect to the camps. Those in the camps have started to be more aware of the other camps than of the star of the show, the Christ Event, and have started to focus on how different they are from the other camps, while if they really wanted to find out at a deeper level why they're so different, the answer is a short walk away.

The walk to another part of the seating would reveal a set of questions that your pet view does not address, and cultural forces and assumptions that make your answers seem irrelevant and yet these also are followers of the Messiah. So don't think that your view is the final, the real, the complete version. Not even if it's newly (re)discovered. It will only ever be complete in the context of your set of questions, forces, and assumptions. There will be a cultural shift in the future that will set it all on its ear again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Whole Food Theology II

I suppose that I could actually title this, "If you are a Christian you are this..." It was that sort of Facebook dialogue that is the catalyst for this.

My daughter says I should just clean up my friends list to avoid being embroiled in controversies. But some people are still friends though I haven't seen them for years and our opinions have diverged. Anyhow someone in my friend list was rah-rah-ing Ted Cruz for walking off the stage at a persecuted Christians gala because he was committed to supporting Israel and they saw Israel as part of the problem. I read the referenced article as well as a few others covering the event and suggested that there was more than one way to spin his exit. Well, some people, not the original poster, although she didn't like it either, were retorting with "You better be on Israel's side if you are on God's side!" style stuff at the merest suggestion that there was any other way to read the event.

There was a bit more back and forth and one of my rebuttals is the basis of this post. So, with the hubris required for me to actually quote myself:
[It's a question of ] "if you are Christian, you are this," [or] "if you are a Christian you diligently do your best to think all these issues through...
I'm thinking we have all encountered a lot of "if you are a Christian, you are this.." The aforementioned group that believes that the modern state of Israel (and it is a modern state in every way and not the restoration of the Davidic Monarchy) is the successor to the Israel and Judah of Bible times. The people who believe the opposite. The people who view the Atonement through a Neo-Calvinistic lens. The people who find that abhorrent. I've had all sorts of assumptions thrown at me about what bandwagons I had better be on from all of them. Okay, not directly, but in the writings, articles, blogposts. But you might have heard me say this before. What about not being sure yet?

Brad Jersak once wrote a book I really enjoyed called Her Gates Shall Never Be Shut about the many different options in scripture as to what happens to non-believers after death. He called it a polyphony. Truth is, about so much of this stuff, there is also the same: a polyphony. And here's where I go back to my earlier post about Whole Food Theology as opposed to Refined Theology. It's the polyphony that gives us not one but many pictures to enlighten, flesh out, and yes, even confuse our efforts to be sure of some theological fact. I could go through the list of different viewpoints plus many more and demonstrate why I can't be wholly satisfied by any one of them, but perhaps that would be too much. At any rate I return once more to my favourite theological statement, the one that really sums it up and is all I can be sure of these days: I have decided to follow Jesus...

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Whole Food Theology

I once knew an herbalist who told me something interesting about the drug valium. She said that a small percentage of people have a very severe reaction to it but that if one of those people had instead taken valerian, the herbal source of valium, they would have just vomited and been perfectly safe. By refining the valerian, the drug companies had managed to remove built in safeguards in the form of other substances present in the unprocessed valerian.

I'd like to propose something similar in the area of theology. A few Sundays ago, I heard a very awkward exposition of penal substitution by someone who claimed to be a former pastor. It was during an open mike response time after the sermon. Now recently I've found myself defending penal substitution, not because I am bound and determined that it's the true way or anything, but rather that I think it's 1) a possible way to look at atonement which answers adequately at least some of the questions raised by atonement, and 2) a view that many quality Jesus followers have had in the recent past and to impugn it as evil would be to impugn them. Point out weaknesses, yes, propose something different, yes, but vilify, no. But hearing this fellow put it "God had to protect us from himself..." I thought, "that can't be it." and "I guess it's this kind of thing that my sometime opponents are fighting against."

As I see it, the ex-pastor fellow had a highly refined and potentially toxic form of theology. The demands for purity that he had put upon it were distorting it all out of shape. But the solution is not to formulate an antidote. I think the antidote will always be just as distorted. Read the story. The story itself, with its symbols and foreshadowing and relationships both unfathomably cosmic and accessibly human, is like the valerian. The theology could sometimes be like the valium, distilled, pure -- and potentially toxic. No, I am not putting down theology in general. I am merely proposing that we try not to define things in the hard and fast manner to which we have become accustomed and admit that we don't know.

 (cue a memory of singing beside my Dad in church, "But I know whom I have believed...")

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Star Wars Post

When I was a kid some well meaning Christian published a book called "The Force of Star Wars." The idea was to lead the reader past the rather lame religion espoused by the Jedi in the movie (not lame? Good and Evil in balance? What an idea. Nuff said.) on to an awareness to the Person from whom all power originates. I'm not sure how effective the book was. And I'm sure I don't want to try the same.

But I had an experience at this last Star Wars movie that might be useful to someone. Without venturing into spoiler-land I'll try to describe the scene. It's essentially the final duel. In the middle the young and emerging good character is given the obligatory offer: "Come with me and I'll teach of the ways of the Force." This was really the wrong thing to say. Our hero is suddenly aware of this thing that she has only recently begun to experience and all because the villain made the ill-considered offer to remind her. Of course that was the turning point.

But what happened certainly had some commonality with something I know about. She takes a breath, relaxes, and reminds herself what the Force really is. And suddenly the Force is all around her, guiding her and backing her up. And I went, "hey!" Cause that's where I go if I'm called on to pray for healing.

Admittedly, I wish more people would get healed when I pray for them. But I've got to say I love that moment when I remember (I mean really remember) who God really is...

(Disclaimer: this is my first post ever from just cell phone. Editorial quality may have suffered)