What Do You Say That I Did?

What Do You Say That I Did? January 27, 2009

In my Sunday school class this past Sunday, we moved on from discussing who Jesus was to discussing what he did, and how it relates to the Christian experience usually placed under the heading of “salvation”.

I began with the story of a child who, in church on Good Friday, asked her parents why anyone would crucify a 3-month-old baby. Apparently the church’s year, celebrating Easter a few months after Christmas, was being taken somewhat too literally. My reason for telling this story is that, for some Christians, if Jesus had died at 3 months old it would apparently not have much of an impact on their understanding of what Jesus had come to accomplish. He had come to die, and between birth and death Jesus was simply “killing time” waiting to die. Any view of the cross that ignores the life that preceded it is going to be problematic.
It is not surprising that some Christians view Jesus in this way. On the one hand, since Paul had not followed Jesus in the pre-Easter period (although he may have become aware of the movement centered on him as soon as it reached Jerusalem, whether before or after Easter), and because he was writing to individuals who could be presumed to have had Christian tradition passed on to them, Paul never fills his letters with stories about Jesus’ life. The cross was also the part of the story of Jesus that was potentially the most troubling, and thus the early Christians had had to make it central, and come up with an explanation that would regard the cross as a necessary and intelligible part of God’s plan, and so they had found a way of interpreting it as salvific.
Another key focus in the Sunday school class was on what theologians call the “penal substitution” view of atonement. It is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is based on a view of justice that no one would otherwise accept. If the U.S., failing to apprehend Osama bin Laden, claimed that it had nonetheless accomplished its mission because they executed some other innocent individual in his place, I doubt if anyone would be happy with this as a resolution of the matter.
It is also a view of the cross that is not found in the Bible. Sure, it can be read into it, but it cannot be found there unless one is already looking for it. For Paul, the key meaning of Jesus’ death is summed up well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “one died for all, and therefore all died”. That’s almost the exact opposite of the popular Evangelical message, “one died instead of all, so that they might not have to die“. Even if we conclude that Paul’s language of “dying with Christ” is just another way of talking metaphorically about denying ourselves and self-sacrifice, it nevertheless makes clear that the Christian view of “salvation” expressed here is not about Jesus doing something instead of us, but of something that involves us and happens to us and in us. Ironically, while some feel they are glorifying God by making atonement something that involves no action or effort on our part, they’ve also radically departed from a central component of early Christian belief.

Next week we’ll begin a new topic, spending some time in the creation stories in Genesis 1-3 and discussing matters of creation, cosmology, evolution and science.
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  • Then what’s Paul mean when he calls Jesus a propitiation (Romans 3:25)? What did Jesus’ death and blood accomplish that makes us free from God’s wrath (Romans 5:9)? Are you saying it’s a matter of us dying with Christ, and that’s what gives us a fresh start? And the propitiation would be that Jesus appeased God’s wrath, so God was willing to give humanity a chance at a fresh start?

  • ‘…..he was writing to individuals who could be presumed to have had Christian tradition passed on to them, Paul never fills his letters with stories about Jesus’ life.’I see.So that is why Paul never has to explain a parable, or expound upon the signficance of a miracle.Everybody knew ,for example, that Jesus had said in Luke 10:8 that Christian missionaries should eat whatever food is set in front of them.Just as everybody knew that Jesus had declared all foods clean.And everybody knew that Jesus had referred to himself as ‘the Son of Man’, so Paul studiously avoids using it (perhaps it was copyright)And while Paul explains the significance of the births to Sarah and Hagar, nobody asked the signifance of the birth of Jesus, or wanted to know if Jesus exhibited signs of divinity as a child.And while the Christians Paul was writing to knew perfectly well that some people were taking part in baptism for the dead, Paul tells them what they already knew, although he cannot bring himself to remind them that the Lord and Saviour had spoken on the resurrection.It all starts to make sense….

  • James, you do realize that you are beginning with what you feel the cross needs to accomplish, and then demanding that the New Testament evidence conform? As for propitiating God’s wrath, it seems to me rather odd to suggest that God sent Jesus to propitiate himself!Steven, I fortunately have adept sarcasm detectors. One reason why Paul doesn’t quote Jesus as having “declared all foods clean” is perhaps because Jesus never said it. This seems to be an instance where Mark added a comment (which Matthew leaves out). See Dunn’s study of “Matthean Awareness of Markan Redaction” on this particular example and others like it.”Son of man” is a Semitic idiom for “human being”. The striking fact is that the Gospel authors so consistently preserve it even though it is scarcely intelligible to Greek readers, not that Paul omits it.The stories about Jesus’ birth likewise postdate Mark, and thus Paul.So although I know you’re being sarcastic, I’m not sure why you find it unlikely that Paul would only rarely mention the tradition they had already been given – as e.g. in 1 Corinthians 7, 11 and 15.

  • Wait a second, Dr. McGrath, the New Testament is calling Jesus’ death a propitiation. Those aren’t my words! I’m asking you what you think that means. Paul says that the blood of Christ freed us from the wrath of God. You reject penal substitution, so, in your opinion or model of the atonement, how do you think Jesus’ death did that?I’m not being polemical here. I’m just sick of people blowing off penal substitution with “that’s just Anselm.” If they believe in an alternative, then I have a right to ask how biblical statements about the atonement fit into that.

  • ‘One reason why Paul doesn’t quote Jesus as having “declared all foods clean” is perhaps because Jesus never said it.’SO Jesus never said that what goes into a man does not defile him, or that Christian missionaries should eat whatever food is set in front of them?Of course, 1 Cor 15 has zero earthly Jesus, and 1 Cor 11 has the cultic founder founding a cultic meal, where his followers could have the body they would otherwise not – the ideal example of what a mythical founder would expect to find.And why does Paul write a long letter like Romans and never give one direct quote from Jesus?Was what Jesus said of so little relevance to Christianity?JAMES”Son of man” is a Semitic idiom for “human being”. The striking fact is that the Gospel authors so consistently preserve it even though it is scarcely intelligible to Greek readers, not that Paul omits it.CARRI guess Greek readers were baffled by the term ‘Christ’ as well.And not only was ‘Son of Man’ one of those traditions Paul’s readers all knew about, but it was also something they found almost unintelligible.Not that they would ever dream of asking Paul to write to explain what it meant?Why should they? They were Christians, totally uncurious about getting information about Jesus from the apostle to them.

  • James, which passage do you have in mind, where the reference is to the cross and the meaning is clearly “propitiation” as opposed to other possible meanings (e.g. “expiation”) also being possible?Steven, if you actually want to have a conversation about this topic, I would really like for you to either make a clear statement or ask a question. Are you asking whether calling Jesus “greased” in Greek was readily intelligible to non-Jews? If so, the answer is no. Yet Paul doesn’t explain it in any of his letters. Is this not excellent evidence that he expected those to whom he wrote to already know some things?

  • I have in mind Romans 3:25, though, even if the meaning of hilasterion here is “expiation,” my question still stands: how do you believe that Jesus’ death propitiated God, or brought about our forgiveness of sins? And Romans 3:25 seems to refer to the cross, since it mentions blood. I mean, it’s all over the New Testament that Jesus’ blood brings forgiveness or justification(Matthew 26:28; Romans 5:9, etc.). And the New Testament is drawing on the Hebrew Bible, where blood expiates for sin, as you know. To acknowledge that fact is not importing Anselm or evangelicalism into the Scriptures. It’s observing what’s there.I just wonder how people who reject penal substitution deal with those Scriptures. Usually, critics of Anselm are like, “Well, what an awful God, who has to be appeased like that!” But how do they get around the fact that the New Testament presents Jesus dying to secure our forgiveness? How would you explain it? What does Jesus’ death have to do with our forgiveness, in your opinion?

  • James, If you want to talk about whether Jesus’ death was or was not necessary in order for God to forgive human beings, we can have that conversation. But first I’d like to address what seems to me to be a presupposition of your post, namely that references to Jesus’ blood or to his death as atoning or sacrificial imply penal substitution. In my view, they do not. Paul’s main image, that of dying with Christ, is participatory, sharing in Christ’s exodus out from under the powers of the present evil age. Hebrews uses imagery from the Yom Kippur ritual, and in light of Wenham’s commentary and the language used in Hebrews, I’d say the blood is understood to cleanse the tabernacle so that a holy God can dwell amidst a sinful people. As for sacrifice, there were sacrifices for propitiation, expiation, expression of gratitude, sharing a fellowship meal with God, and other uses, but none clearly involved the notion that the animal died instead of the sinner.In short, I don’t think penal substitution is there. Even Anselm had Christ paying a debt of honor that we owed, which is still not yet the law court/balancing the books way of looking at it common today.

  • I am often struck by the way so many fail to consider the Paschal Lamb imagery in John (and , less directly, in the other Gospels?). John has Jesus slain on the Day of Preparation. This draws the parallel between Jesus and the lambs whose blood was used to mark the houses of the Hebrews against the last, terrible, plague of Egypt. Thus, Jesus is not the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, bearing the sins of all the people of Israel. For John, Jesus’ blood is a sign. A sign of what? Not sure. Of God’s intention to spare us?

  • Actually, I don’t think I ever said I believe in penal substitution here (even though, yes, I think it explains better than other atonement models why Jesus had to die for us to be forgiven). In my first comment, I was struggling to understand where, in your opinion, atonement and forgiveness fit into a participatory model. Ergo, my questions, “Are you saying it’s a matter of us dying with Christ, and that’s what gives us a fresh start? And the propitiation would be that Jesus appeased God’s wrath, so God was willing to give humanity a chance at a fresh start?” It would have been nice had you addressed those questions, rather than accusing me of forcing the biblical texts into a model. And I deeply resent that, since I try on numerous occasions to let the Bible speak for itself, even when what it seems to say contradicts the typical evangelical spiel.That said, I read your link to your penal substitution post, and I noticed the part about cleansing the Tabernacle. I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I find it helpful because it explains to me Hebrews’ statement that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. Jewish apologists like to point out the shedding of blood was not always necessary for the remission of sin, since the very poor could offer grain for their sin offering. But Hebrews has in mind the cleansing of the Tabernacle, which is what would make the grain sin offering acceptable in the first place, so, in a manner of speaking, the shedding of blood is necessary for forgiveness.At the same time, I wonder how what we do here can affect the state of the sanctuary up there. I’m not saying it doesn’t, since Hebrews is clear that Jesus entered the heavenly sanctuary with his own blood. I just wonder about the mechanics of it all.One other issue: you refer to IV Maccabees in your other post, and you acknowledge that as a clear reference to penal substitution. My problem is that you act like we should treat IV Maccabees in isolation. Why shouldn’t we view it as a statement about a widespread Jewish view on sacrifice: that it involved substitution?

  • James, I apologize – I read Steven’s ironic comment with its rhetorical questions first (it was higher up in my inbox) and then read yours and mistook your tone. I apologize.I’ll write more later (I just lost a first version of this comment, and before that I shoveled a foot of snow from my driveway and porch, so I’m tired!).

  • Great post. Your thoughts are absolutely excellent. I linked it on our blog site here:http://www.christianmonthlystandard.com/index.php/jesus-did-not-die-in-your-place/If I knew how to do a “ping” I would.I wish more would reconsider penal substitution.

  • James, let me now try to give a fuller, but nonetheless brief, reply, starting with IV Maccabees. I wouldn’t say that IV Maccabees is an entirely isolated instance – the traditions about the Akedah are comparable – but in both cases the “sacrificial” character of the deaths is symbolic of their bringing diving favor onto the nation through their obedience. That can, of course, be compared to the theme of Jesus’ obedience in the New Testament.The sacrifices that ancient Israel practiced did not originate with them. The texts from Ugarit have almost precisely the same terms we find in Leviticus. And so I wouldn’t say there is anything one has to cling to in the sacrificial rituals in order to make sense of how we relate to God. That was how ancient Semitic peoples thought, and whether in IV Maccabees or Philo or the NT, they seem to have been open to a rich metaphorical exploration of other ways of thinking about such matters. I’m very much in favor of doing the same, although obviously we don’t need to abandon all terminology of “sacrifice” since that term is meaningful in English, although it doesn’t conjure up notions of animal blood being sprinkled.Perhaps, when it comes down to it, I’d want to begin with the experience of having our lives changed, which seems to be common to both ancient and modern Christians, and find ways of talking about it that make as much sense to our contemporaries today as the terminology of sacrifice did to ancient peoples.

  • 1. Right, I know other cultures and religions had sacrifices, though I’m not entirely sure about the specifics. Even if the Israelites absorbed that idea from other Semites, though, I still think it should be significant for Christians, since the New Testament interprets Christ in light of the sacrificial system. But you may be right that the animals atoned for sin in a manner that was not substitution. Maybe blood was just considered a cleansing agent!2. I got something about changed lives in your post–you said something to the effect that a lot of Christians want atonement, but don’t want to put in the effort of dying daily.I agree with you in part, from a Romans 6 standpoint. I was just curious about how forgiveness fit into that. It may just be a matter of our old selves dying with Christ and us coming up as new creatures. For Paul, the demands of the law were against our old serves, but they are not against our new selves. For a long time, I’ve read Romans as (1.) God’s wrath is against sinners, (2.) Christ endured that wrath in sinners’ place. (3.) Now we’re forgiven, and God’s wrath is a thing of the past. But maybe there’s a second way to read it. (1.) God’s wrath is against sinners. (2.) Christ died for the sake of sinners (not in place of them), and those who believe in Christ die with him and rise again– with a fresh start and a new life. In that case, we may have to reinterpret other passages we cherish. When Jesus said he was going to drink the cup, was he talking about the cup of God’s wrath that the Hebrew Bible harps upon? Or is there another interpretation–such as he was about to undergo a tough mission. When Jesus asked God why he had forsaken him, was that because he was experiencing the hell of God’s wrath at the crucifixion? Or was it just him crying out from despair? When there was darkness, was that the darkness of the Day of the Lord? Or is there another significance?But there’s something positive about an alternative model of the atonement: God rejects penal substitution in Exodus 32:33. A lot of evangelicals try to do gymnastics to get around that–“Well, of course God didn’t let Moses die for the people, since he was a sinner himself, plus his sacrifice wouldn’t have been good enough to atone for all those people, for only God can do that”–but that’s not what God says. He says, “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.”

  • No problem. Thanks for discussing this with me. It does help me see things in a different light.

  • I found very helpful a book I read many years ago on the subject by Paul Fiddes, a British Baptist theologian. He argued that, in essence, if we compare God’s anger at sin and injustice to a doctor’s anger at the ravages of cancer, the solution is to find a way to deal with the cancer, not to merely appease the doctor’s anger. In the same way, we should expect atonement/reconciliation/salvation to involve addressing the roots of human alienation from God and mistreatment of other human beings, rather than merely a wiping clean of our record, as it were.

  • Yeah, I agree with that, though I wouldn’t exclude the wiping the slate clean part. As you said, Hebrews and Leviticus address the question of how a holy God can dwell with sinful humanity. At the same time, as you know, there’s a lot of talk in Paul about a new creation.One question I have, which will initially look broad, but hopefully will become tighter: How does Christ’s atonement deal with the problem of sin? Is it a matter of inspiring us, as Abelard pretty much said? Is it the death of the old sinful flesh and God giving us the Holy Spirit, which supposedly makes us want to do right (how I read Paul)? If it’s the second, my main problem is practical, since I don’t always feel as if my carnal self is dead.