A Response to Tony Jones: Radical Practice Needs Deep Roots in Doctrine

Earlier this week, Tony Jones noted that many Christians who are calling for a faith more engaged with the world have surprising little to say about God. A good point–and one that’s particularly disturbing over the long haul. Think, for example, about how many institutions that were inspired by faith have completely cut off any official connection to God-talk. Hospitals, for example. I’m just back from visiting one this afternoon. The orderly who was taking my friend to surgery looked at me with impatience when I paused to pray for thirty-seconds. Absent its history in the works of mercy, the contemporary hospital is almost entirely given over to market forces. If the hospital is just another corporation, who has time for prayer?

But a faith that engages the world—that is, a faith that practices the works of mercy and follows up with a pursuit of justice—will inevitably bring us face-to-face with suffering. This is, inevitably, where we have to figure out what we really believe about God. A peculiarly Christian hope rests neither in avoiding suffering nor in accepting it, but in enduring it for the sake of a reward that we must pass through this present darkness to receive. And this makes all the difference for how we seek justice and love mercy in a broken world.

The servant whom the prophet Isaiah anticipates as the hope of God’s people is “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering’ (Isaiah 53:3). He does not overcome evil by mounting a crusade against it. This servant does not beat our stubborn selfishness out of us. He understands the nature of our problem—that “each of us has turned to his own way’ (53:6). What hope, then, does he offer? “The Lord has laid on him,” Isaiah says, “the iniquity of us all” (53:6).

This is the root of what Christian teaching calls substitutionary atonement. Out of context, it is often derided as a cultic notion that betrays a cruel God. What kind of God, critics ask, would demand a substitute victim on which to exercise his wrath so that the rest of humanity does not have to suffer? What’s more, what sort of twisted Father would ask this of his Son? Most people are not relieved to learn that Jesus had to suffer and die a cruel death so God would not damn them to hell.

But this is not the good news that Isaiah anticipated or that the New Testament proclaims. In the context of original sin, which Christian doctrine helps us to name, Isaiah’s suffering servant is one who sees clearly the root of human violence. Though we are inextricably connected to others in the membership of creation, our relationships are fragmented by sin. The twisted desires which Adam and Eve pass on to their sons lead to murder in the second generation of humanity. And this conflict of personalities is quickly magnified to conflicts between societies after the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel.

In short, we are all caught up in a cycle of violence. Each selfish act inevitably affects our fellow human beings and, in something of a domino effect, leads them to react in some selfish (and self-defensive) way. Isaiah sees with prophetic clarity that the only hope of ending this cycle would be for someone to take sin upon them self without passing it on to others. But who could muster the inner resources to suffer without retaliation—to endure the world’s violence in love?

The answer the New Testament proposes is God. Given the selfishness in our DNA, there was no hope that any of us—not even Mother Teresa or Gandhi or the Dali Lama—was ever going to be able to interrupt the cycle of violence by only returning good for evil. Thus the substitution that animates the hope of Christianity is the incarnation—the belief that God took on human flesh in Jesus Christ to do for us what we could not collectively or individually do for ourselves. “Being in very nature God,” Paul explains, Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6–7). This is a servant that attentive readers of Isaiah recognize.

God acts definitely in Jesus to become our suffering servant, to overcome evil with good. He lives the life of the true human being, attentive to every word of God and faithful to every relationship with other people and the world around him. To people who have been crushed by this world’s broken systems, Jesus’ life is a welcome interruption—an eruption, even, of good news. But to the powers who are invested in the way the broken system works, Jesus is an enemy who must be killed.

Jesus’ willingness to suffer a criminal’s death on the cross, having done absolutely nothing wrong, is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us. This is the substitution that both atones for our sins and makes it possible for us to live at one, even with our enemies. Thus, substitutionary atonement is not an embarrassing dogma, but genuine good news.

And it is good news that we’re going to need if we are to face the unavoidable suffering that the pursuit of God’s justice brings.

  • http://inourelements.com Stan Dotson

    Jonathon, it’s one thing to bemoan the market forces that have taken over works of mercy, and the absence of an accompanying spiritual practice. However, I cannot see how a focus on doctrine can be an answer. Was it doctrine that animated Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama? Is the theological vocabulary we use to describe our encounter with the Holy so important? After all, there are Christian doctrines that do not use the concept of original sin, nor the concept of substitutionary atonement. It doesn’t mean those Christians don’t speak of God, or the work of Christ. Can we not share our experiences of spiritual practice and encounter, and yes, talk about God, without being bound to doctrinal structures and systems of thought? Would this not free us to speak and listen to people of different faiths without getting bogged down in doctrinal disputes?

    • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Stan, I share your disappointment with the way faith is so often reduced to “thought systems,” over which people argue. When I say “doctrine” I’m not talking about a disembodied idea, but the convictions that give rise to and sustain faithful practice. What I’ve tried to do in my newest book, The Awakening of Hope, is to show how the “why” of faith affects the “how.” Gandhi is a great example of this. Amidst all of his campaigns and actions, he wrote and prayed every day of his life, always trying to know God better. There are great transcripts of the friendly arguments he had w/ Christian missionaries. He often understood their faith better than they did.

      • http://inourelements.com Stan Dotson

        Thanks for the clarification, Jonathan. I was interpreting your use of the word “doctrine” more from the dictionary definition: creed, credo, dogma, ideology,etc. That we need to have strong convictions driving our actions, and strong spiritual practices empowering our actions, is something I agree with. I simply think that a focus on doctrine in the traditional use of the word is dividing, demonstrated by the 38,000 plus denominations of Christianity that have emerged, at least in part, from doctrinal disputes. I would hope for a Christian witness that does think deeply and clearly about God, and does emphasize spiritual practice, but is able to dialogue across differences of creed and ideology and dogma without concern for uniformity. Thanks for all the ways you and your community do put this kind of Christianity into practice.

    • Frank

      No.

  • http://www.derechristianity.com Timothy Bastedo

    I wrote a piece on this at http://www.derechristianity.com, inspired by the Chick-fi’-Asco. We come to different conclusions, but maybe because we’re coming from different directions (prog/conservative)? I’d love to hear more from you on why we need doctrinal delineation in order to sustain a certain form of life – I can’t help but think that the rationality of such a pattern (know the goal, then aim for it) says more about our own desires to order our world than it might about God. Thanks writing this piece!

  • Matthew

    I think it´s doctrine that binds things together. Without it, what do we have? How do we explain our faith? Yes … it is good not to argue over issues of doctrine so much, but at the same time we need to recognize that Christian doctrine explains things about God and His relationship with mankind that couldn´t otherwise be explained as clearly (I don´t think) via other means.

  • http://www.oboedire.wordpress.com Steve Harper

    Jonathan, you are “right on target” and your insights are sorely needed in a culture that either equates faith and practice, or separates them. The Christian tradition is “sapiential theology”—a way of uniting what we believe with what we practice. John Wesley spoke of it as the uniting of knowledge and piety. Yes, doctrine can become doctrinalism, but that’s not what either you or Tony Jones is suggesting. Rather, doctrine helps define the purpose (aim) of our practices. Thomas Merton said that we must ask ourselves what we are living for if we are to know who we are. Credo is the basis for conduct. All our “whats” are defined and directed by our “whys.” The role of doctrine is not to create litmus tests, but to establish a “north star” by which we navigate our personal and common life. Without it, we may know that we’re moving, but we will not know what we are moving toward. Movement without meaning is dangerous.

    • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks, Steve. Grateful for your prayers and faithful teaching along these lines.

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://PrairietableMinistries.blogspot.com Scott Frederickson

    I truly love your work on violence and suffering in our understanding of who God is. I still cannot accept substitutionary atonement, even within the context in which you present it, as it seems to make the solution unavailable to those humans for whom God has not incarnated as God did with Jesus. I don’t think there is a theological solution to this difference (or at least we haven’t discovered one yet), but the focus on practice can allow those with different doctrines to at least work together. You’ve done an excellent job on why we should. Thank you for sharing.

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  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    “But a faith that engages the world—that is, a faith that practices the works of mercy and follows up with a pursuit of justice—will inevitably bring us face-to-face with suffering. This is, inevitably, where we have to figure out what we really believe about God. A peculiarly Christian hope rests neither in avoiding suffering nor in accepting it, but in enduring it for the sake of a reward that we must pass through this present darkness to receive. And this makes all the difference for how we seek justice and love mercy in a broken world.”

    That’s a great word. Doctrines and practices link up in important ways and the Cross is at the heart of the way Christians meet the world. What I’m not too sure about is your articulation of substitutionary atonement. First, you offer up a couple of popular caricatures of it:
    “This is the root of what Christian teaching calls substitutionary atonement. Out of context, it is often derided as a cultic notion that betrays a cruel God. What kind of God, critics ask, would demand a substitute victim on which to exercise his wrath so that the rest of humanity does not have to suffer? What’s more, what sort of twisted Father would ask this of his Son? Most people are not relieved to learn that Jesus had to suffer and die a cruel death so God would not damn them to hell.”

    Then you articulate a sort Girardian understanding about breaking the cycle of violence, etc. I mean, that Jesus breaks the cycle of violence is a fine idea that testifies to God’s mercy and grace. I have no qualms with connecting that thought with the Cross. At the same time, at the end of this post I’m left wondering how Jesus’ death on the Cross actually atones for my sins. The account leaves out the penal aspect of the traditional doctrine in which the Cross is actually God taking on Himself his own judgment against the crimes of a sinful humanity enabling it to enter freely into a restored relationship of communion with himself. On this view, God is merciful, but there’s no accounting for the injustice of the violence we inflict on each other or our offense against him. Guilt is left untouched and intact. It is not petty of God to demand an accounting for sin, but rather it would be insensitive and unjust to the victims of violence throughout the centuries if the King of the world did nothing about their sin.

    There’s a passage where N.T. Wright is correcting another theologian rejecting penal substitutionary atonement and managing to quote Isaiah 53 in the process that’s relevant here:

    “Ironically, Dr John himself alludes to Isaiah 53 at the end of his talk, suggesting that Jesus ‘bears our griefs and shares our sorrows’, without realising that if you get one part of Isaiah 53 you probably get the whole thing, and with it not only a substitutionary death but a penal substitutionary death, yet without any of the problems that the caricature would carry:

    He was wounded for our transgressions
    and bruised for our iniquities;
    upon him was the punishment that brought us peace
    and with his stripes we are healed.
    All we like sheep have gone astray;
    We have turned every one to his own way;
    And YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
    (Isaiah 53:5-6.)

    It is with the Servant, and the theology of the whole of Isaiah 40-55, that we find the explanation for the otherwise bizarre idea of one person standing in for the many (which, as Dr John says, we might otherwise find incomprehensible and deeply offensive). The sense which penal substitution makes it does not make, in the last analysis, within the narrative of feudal systems of honour and shame. It certainly does not make the sense it makes within the world of some arbitrary lawcourt. It makes the sense it makes within the biblical world, the Old Testament world, within which the creator God, faced with a world in rebellion, chose Israel – Abraham and his family – as the means of putting everything right, and, when Israel itself had rebelled, promised to set that right as well and so to complete the purpose of putting humans right and thus setting the whole created order back the right way up. And the long-promised way by which this purpose would be achieved was, as hints and guesses in the Psalms and prophets indicate, that Israel’s representative, the anointed king, would be the one through whom this would be accomplished. Like David facing Goliath, he would stand alone to do for his people what they could not do for themselves. It is because Jesus, as Israel’s representative Messiah, was therefore the representative of the whole human race, that he could appropriately become its substitute. That is how Paul’s logic works. ‘One died for all, therefore all died,’ he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5.14; and thus, seven verses later, ‘God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin,’ he concluded seven verses later, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (5.21). And it is within that argument that we find the still deeper truth, which is again rooted in the dark hints and guesses of the Old Testament: that the Messiah through whom all this would be accomplished would be the very embodiment of YHWH himself. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.19).

    Underneath all this discussion is a deep concern which has emerged again in our own day, notably in the writings of the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. In his magisterial Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), he demonstrates, with sharp examples from his native Balkans, that it simply won’t do, when faced with radical evil, to say, ‘Oh well, don’t worry, I will love you and forgive you anyway.’ That (as the 1938 Doctrine Report already saw) is not forgiveness; it is belittling the evil that has been done. Genuine forgiveness must first ‘exclude’, argues Volf, before it can ‘embrace’; it must name and shame the evil, and find an appropriate way of dealing with it, before reconciliation can happen. Otherwise we are just papering over the cracks. As I said early on, if God does not hate the wickedness that happens in his beautiful world, he is neither a good nor a just God, and chaos is come again. Somehow I sense that Dr John knows this, since he writes movingly of Jesus Christ as God coming down into the midst of the mess and the muddle to be with us and . . . to rescue us – though he never says how this rescue is effected. But again and again I sense in Dr John’s writing the problem which Anselm already identified: you have not yet considered how serious sin is. It isn’t that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on. That is what the classic Anglican formularies and liturgy say.

    Recently, looking for something else, I came upon this:

    God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)”

    The whole article can be accessed here:
    http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/news/2007/20070423wright.cfm?doc=205

    Blesings,

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  • Barry

    Meh. Give me the Dalai Lama…


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