Category Archives: Theology
This is the third in my series of working through my Doctor of Ministry dissertation on confession in the Churches of Christ. Today I look at the biblical evidence for the practice of confession.
Within the Churches of Christ our focus has been primarily on the New Testament. The Old Testament is valuable, so children are told, but mostly because all the really cool stories are in the Old Testament. There are no floods, no arks, no fish that swallow humans, no giant-killing little shepherds in the New Testament. As adults we are told that the Old Testament is valuable because it “teaches us about God,” but if that is the case we must not want to know much about God because we spend precious little time studying (I mean really studying) the Old Testament.
However, in my doctoral studies I wrote a paper on the Psalms of Lament, and it struck a nerve with me. Depending on how you classify the Psalms, approximately one-third of the Psalms (maybe a little more, maybe a little less) are Psalms of lament. Now, stop and ask yourself a question – why was lament such a major part of worship for the Israelites/Jews? Well, that got me to thinking, and when the time came for me to select my dissertation topic, one thing kind of led to another and the subject of confession made itself sort of unavoidable.
So, as a result of the paper on the Psalms of Lament, I turned not to the New Testament for the “skeleton” of my biblical study on confession, but to the Psalms. What I discovered was that the Psalms are basically a roadmap for the practice of confession. In fact, you might say that “confession” is one major, if not the major, theme that unifies the entire book of Psalms.
In a very brief summary, I discovered that the book of Psalms contains the following four types of confession:
Adoration, Praise, and the confession of belief/faith in God
Confession of sin
Now, some may quibble about my taxonomy here, but as John Denver once quipped to his audience that was clamoring for him to sing their favorite song, “Hey, this is my show.”
I then turned to the narrative sections of the Old Testament and discovered that these same qualities, or types, of confession are described throughout the text. Within the prophetic material the aspect of lament is particularly evident in Jeremiah, but the other types of confession are evident in the prophets as well. Certainly the book of Job contains both lament and praise.
Turning to the New Testament I discovered the same thread – there are examples of each of the four main types of confession, although lament is noticeably more subdued in the New Testament. I believe there is a theological reason for that – but there are examples of lament within the New Testament as well.
The purpose of this section of the dissertation was to demonstrate that confession (in all of its various forms) was, and is, a critical component of the daily life and worship of God’s people. The absence of a clear and sustained emphasis on confession in the Churches of Christ is all the more striking, then, because one of the “pillars” of our heritage is that we want to go back to the Bible and practice the pure faith and religion of the earliest church. I am convinced, and I argue in my dissertation, that we have failed to do so when it comes to the practice of confession.
I realize these blog posts are rudimentary – just giving the briefest sketch of my work. However, I am creating a seminar that covers this material in-depth, and if you would like more information about scheduling a seminar in your area, please contact me at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com. Also, I am presently searching for a publisher who might be interested in publishing the dissertation (although expanded and modified for a general audience), so if there is anyone out there in the blogosphere who has a connection with a publisher who might be interested, please let me know at the above email address. I will be deeply grateful!
Thanks for following me in the fog!
One of the greatest blessings given to me through my studies for my DMin. coursework was the realization of how secular philosophies affect our theology. Second to this observation is the further truth that these philosophies are virtually hidden to our conscious thought. These philosophies are just like the air we breath – we are controlled by them yet we are hardly aware of them, if at all.
In my last post I discussed the reality that for many members of the Churches of Christ, our physical history is something of an enigma. We clearly have one (kind of like a belly button) but for many of us we do not want it to be seen or discussed (again, much like a belly button). We can cover it up, and refuse to admit we have one, but sooner or later the truth comes out and our history rises up to bite us when and where we least expect it.
If acknowledging our history is difficult for the majority of the members of the Churches of Christ, the admission that we are affected by secular philosophy (or philosophies) is tantamount to heresy. Even those who accept that the Restoration Movement is rooted in history will more often than not claim that this history is divine history, and therefore unstained by any human embellishment. In that limited world-view, God simply swooped down and deposited the Restoration Movement onto the pages of history much like he swooped down to snatch Elijah from the earth. Don’t laugh. For many years this was my concept of Restoration History. Sort of like the “big bang,” first there was no Restoration, and then “POOF” there was a Restoration. Call it Restoration ex nihilo.
This, much to my initial chagrin and later relief, cannot be any further from the truth. The fact is that Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Tolbert Fanning, David Lipscomb, and every leader down to the latest graduate from our universities or schools of preaching were and are profoundly affected by the prevailing philosophies of their day. For Campbell and Stone that meant the philosophy of John Locke, Francis Bacon, and the political philosophy that drove the “Founding Fathers” of our nation to create the Constitution. Evidence of this can be amply produced through the language used in the early documents of the Restoration Movement. This is why so much of our contemporary language focuses on “pattern” and “constitution” and “blueprint.” We are simply following in the footsteps of those who were following in the footsteps of those who formed the new Republic.
For us today the situation is the same, although the prevailing philosophies have changed. We are no longer marching in lock-step with those who believe in the ultimate goodness of technology or the limitless capacity of the human mind. We have seen both the incomparable good of splitting the atom, and also the horrific evil of the same. Yet, having split the atom, we cannot seem to figure out a way to put the thing back together. We realize now that man is more likely to be the cause of his own demise, rather than the source of his own salvation. There is no “ultimate good” for which man is destined. The “modern mind” which so fully captivated Campbell has been replaced with the “postmodern mind;” therefore, much of what Campbell believed to be incontrovertible truth now just seems like a quaint little fairy tale. Such is the air that we breathe, the truth that we hold to be “self-evident.”
What does all of this “philosophizing” have to do with theology? Simply this – if we do not at least attempt to recognize our own temporal worldview, we will end up making the same mistakes of our spiritual forebears. I for one am an avowed restorationist. I am constantly awed and humbled by the profundity of Campbell, Stone, Walter Scott, “Raccoon” John Smith and a host of others. They were centuries ahead of their contemporaries, as modern theological thought has proven. But, that having been said, they were woefully unaware that the basic philosophy of their day was coloring the theology that they were producing. Therefore, they read early 19th century America back into the Bible, especially the New Testament, and the result of their research was that Jesus was the quintessential American Patriot. That philosophical blindness has been passed down for numerous generations, and it has affected our spiritual vision at every step along the way.
The solution to this vision problem is not to discard our history! (As so many are wont to do). Neither is it to idolize our history and simply ignore the reality of temporal nearsightedness. The solution is to acknowledge the reality of our own human frailty, to acknowledge the affect of secular philosophy upon our most deeply held convictions, and then to challenge those convictions with the penetrating truth of God’s word.
In my own, very narrow study of confession, what I discovered was that the Lockean/Baconian empiricism of Campbell and his early disciples made it virtually impossible for them and their heirs to develop and bequeath a healthy practice of confession. Stated in its most raw expression, if you have everything all figured out, if you have perfectly restored that which was defective, there is no need for confession. That, of course, is an over-simplification, but it works for a “nuts-and-bolts” summary of the early chapters of my dissertation.
Lest I be counted as an ancestor-bashing, history-hating, long-haired, dope-smoking hippy, let me repeat – I am an avowed restorationist. I am far more Stonian/Lipscombian than I am Campbellian, but if I am cut I bleed Restorationist blood. I wrote my dissertation to honor my heritage, not to trash it. So, in the greatest heritage of seeking to improve upon that which has been given to me, I recognize some areas where my spiritual heritage can be strengthened. One of those areas is confession, and that is what led me to my final research.
As I mentioned in my last blog, I will create a seminar dedicated to sharing this information with any who are interested. Please contact me at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com and I will gladly get back with you.
I promised some time ago to work through the conclusions of my doctoral dissertation. I hope to do so in a general way, although for the “brass tacks” specifics you will have to wait awhile.
I chose that creepy picture that accompanies this post for a reason. I am not afraid of many things, although a few issues really creep me out. Heights for one, and I do tend to be claustrophobic. But, Black Widow Spiders?? I would just as soon hit my thumb with a hammer as to have to deal with BWS (for short). I have no idea why God created them, and he can just un-create them as far as I am concerned. Do not talk to me about the “balance of nature” – as God could have created umpteen other ways to get rid of flies and other nasty bugs. Black Widow Spiders? – my back is icky just typing the words.
One of the main conclusions of my dissertation is that the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ are either afraid of our history, or are at best ambivalent toward it. That is to say that you would be hard pressed to find 1 out of 10 or 10 out of 100 members that either enjoy learning about the history of the Restoration Movement, or even care about it. That leaves more than 90% of our fellowship (and I imagine the number is much higher) that either hate the idea of Restoration History or simply do not care one way or the other. The end result is the same – our history is steadfastly belittled or ignored.
Those who hate, or fear, our history can be divided into two groups. On the far conservative side are those who simply deny we have a history, and it terrifies them to consider the fact that, yes, we do have a very real physical history, and we are descendants of very real, fallible, sinful human beings. Go back as far as you wish, but you can trace our spiritual heritage to a handful of men – visionaries and spiritual giants all – who observed that the Christian church as they saw it was corrupt and corrupting. They could see in the New Testament a better way, and a far more simple concept of the church. They all sought to “restore” that vision of the church. Some attempted it in ways we would be proud of; some in ways we would disagree with. All of them, however, were human and all of them failed in lesser or greater ways. That is not to criticize nor to idolize. It is simply to acknowledge reality.
On the far other extreme we have those who acknowledge our history, are perhaps are acquainted with it in greater or lesser degrees, but who are equally terrified of that history. These are the “intelligentsia” of our movement, those who would claim to be leading us to more verdant pastures than our forebears. Instead of denying the history of the Restoration Movement, these leaders do not want the hoi poloi, the common people, to learn about the theology of Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and their immediate disciples because there is something profoundly compelling about these early 19th century spiritual pilgrims. When we open up the pages of the Christian Baptist or the Christian Messenger we see real genius at work. We see Christian leaders trying to throw off the yoke of the “guaranteed results of modern scholarship” and simply go back to what the New Testament taught about being a disciple of Christ. I think these individuals are afraid that, if the real wisdom of Campbell and Stone (and Fanning, and Lipscomb, et. al.) were widely disseminated it would destroy their grip on the hearts and minds of the average, pew sitting Church of Christer today.
Caught in the middle between these two opposite, yet strangely married extremes, are the vast majority of church members. They hear first the one side, more strident obviously, but they they also hear the murmurings and whispers of the second group. Held in ignorance by both sides, and unwilling to face the wrath of the first group and not willing to be labeled as Luddites by the second group, they simply maintain their silence and go about their business as if there was no real issue to begin with.
This is tragic! The modern day heirs of the Restoration Movement have one of the richest, the most compelling histories in the wide and complex history of the Christian movement itself. As just one (admittedly puny) example, much of what is being preached today by elements of the “Emerging Church” and the “Missional Church” comes straight out of the theology and praxis of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. But, because we (speaking generically, of course) are so ashamed of our history we do not even recognize the fact, and because we have not claimed our history and proclaimed it’s strengths the world does not know that we could be at least 200 years ahead of the ecclesiastical curve, if not more.
So, to make a long post much shorter, in my dissertation I begin by looking at our history with as clear a set of spectacles as I could. I could not address ALL of our history, as that would take volumes. But I did examine how our history was affected by philosophical beliefs as well as theological conclusions, and how this combination worked against the practice of confession within the Churches of Christ.
Beginning in October of this year (2015) I will begin presenting the conclusions reached in the process of preparing my dissertation in a weekend seminar format. If you are interested in learning more about the biblical practice of confession, and especially how Churches of Christ need to “restore” the practice of biblical confession, send me a personal note to abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com, and I will be happy to get back with you quickly. The first seminar will be in Portales, New Mexico, in October, so perhaps you can attend that seminar, or I will be happy to come to your congregation and present the material to you.
In the past several posts I have provided the reasons why I believe God did not, and indeed could not, have abandoned Jesus on the cross. As I conclude, I would like to present some inescapable conclusions that follow if we believe that somehow God did, or even wanted, to abandon Jesus. I feel that these are so serious as to be conclusive in and of themselves. I will allow you to judge for yourself.
1. If God abandoned Jesus, even for a moment, for that moment Jesus was just a human. This is in clear contradiction to the entire message of the gospel of John. If Jesus’s divinity was somehow “revoked” on the cross, then a mere human atoned for our sins. What does that say about the atonement?
2. The unity of Jesus’s church is a lie. If Jesus’s prayer for the church was based on his unity with his Father, and if that unity was “revoked” or “abandoned,” then what does that teach us about the unity of his believers? Can we accept division in Christ’s church because Jesus and his Father experienced division?
3. The comfort and guidance that Jesus promised is a lie. Jesus prayed in the garden that he would be able to accomplish God’s will. He then promised his disciples that he would be with them “always,” especially as they fulfilled his commission. If God could, and did, reject Jesus at the very moment that Jesus was fulfilling God’s will, what faith can we have in Jesus’s promise to be with us as we try to do his will?
4. Jesus’s death was ultimately unnecessary. If God was with Jesus before Jesus died, and if he was with Jesus as he died, then the atonement was accomplished simply by the suffering of Jesus. His death was superfluous.
5. God cannot be trusted. Who can, or would, trust a despot who demanded absolute fealty and then rejected his own son who is the greatest example of that fealty?
6. Jesus cannot be trusted. Jesus believed he and his Father were one. If he could be misled by the events leading up to the cross, how can he be trusted with his other words? Jesus called for his disciples to follow him up to and including the point of death. If God could, and did, reject Jesus as Jesus was obeying God, how can we trust Jesus to be with us as we follow him to his cross?
The doctrine that God abandoned Jesus is false. It is wrong textually, contextually, theologically, chronologically and historically. The doctrine has no support in the explicit or any implicit teaching of Scripture. It should, therefore, be rejected by any who claim to follow Jesus as the Son of the Living God.
As the title notes, this is post #6 in a series. If you have not been following the series, I invite you to backtrack a little over the past 5 posts.
Of all these posts I think this one is perhaps my favorite. You can argue with me about the interpretation of Psalm 22, or the meaning of Habakkuk 1:13, and certainly the finer points of the trinity and the philosophical arguments about the nature of the atonement can become arcane. However, virtually everyone can understand time, and the ramifications of past tense and present tense. Also, the logic (or illogic) of various arguments becomes crystal clear in this discussion, so I think the present topic is especially meaningful for those who do not understand what is at stake in this debate.
To begin, let us examine the chronology of the last few hours of Jesus life. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is is full unity with God, as I do not believe any “separationist” (those who believe God abandoned Jesus on the cross) would argue. Note Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, and John 17:1-26.
Next we come to the series of quotations we have from Jesus on the cross.
John 19:26-27 – “Son, here is your mother, mother, here is your son.”
Luke 23:34 – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Luke 23:43 – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (spoken to the repentant thief)
Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 – the quotation from Psalm 22:1
John 19:28 – “I thirst.” (alluded to, but not quoted, in Matthew and Mark)
Luke 23:46 – “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
John 19:30 – “It is finished.”
Of the seven statements, four are specifically tied to a time (about the ninth hour, or 3 pm) or immediately before Jesus’s death. Luke’s quotation in 23:46 clearly has Jesus in a close relationship with God, his father. Matthew and Mark’s quotation of Psalm 22 with the “ninth hour” or the time period immediately preceding his death. So, Matthew and Mark place the quotation from Psalm 22 at roughly the same time that Luke has Jesus in an intimate relationship with the father.
Now – here is where we have to allow some logic to direct our thoughts. One major argument used by the “separationists” is that Jesus and the Father were separated, or to put it another way, that God abandoned Jesus, because in Jesus referred to God as “God” and not “Father.” It is inferred that if Jesus was in full unity with God he could not have used the more “distant” term of address. So, just for arguments sake, let’s play this out in terms of the clock –
In the garden – Jesus and God are unified. (No one seriously questions, to the best of my knowledge)
Early in the crucifixion sequence – Jesus and God are unified – “Father, forgive them…” and “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Jesus used the term of intimacy and familial relationship, and it would be the height of blasphemy for a mere human, bereft of any deity, to proclaim any kind of forgiveness of sin or promise of paradise to a condemned criminal!)
Whoops – God abandons Jesus because Jesus uses the word “God” and not “Father.” (Quotation of Psalm 22:1)
At the point of death – Jesus and God are unified – “Father, into your hands” and “It is finished” – emphasis on the familial term once again and the completion of his mission.
So according to the timeline thus presented, God abandoned Jesus for an exceedingly brief period of time, virtually at the same moment that he is breathing his last few breaths. But, not exactly at the time he breathes his last breaths, because at that moment he is once again one with God!
So, let me ask a question here – at what point did God become so horrified at all the sin that Jesus was bearing that he had to “turn his back on Jesus”? And at what point did he return to Jesus? And if it was the burden of sin that Jesus was bearing that made God abandon Jesus, at what point were those sins erased?
If you are riding the fence on this issue I hope something just occurred to you. According to the text of the gospel writers, God was with Jesus before he was crucified, and clearly during the first few hours on the cross. God was with Jesus as he died. Therefore, there is only a very brief window for God to “abandon” Jesus. And, if the only reason for God to abandon Jesus was the “sin” he was bearing, that sin had to be placed on Jesus AFTER his initial crucifixion, and it had to be erased BEFORE he died.
Therefore, dear reader, I would suggest that the death of Jesus was unnecessary. According to that scenario, Jesus only had to suffer pain to atone for sin. Jesus’s actual death then becomes the most horrific crime perpetrated in the entire history of God’s creation.
According to the texts provided in my last post, that is categorically NOT what the apostles preached concerning the atonement. And, therefore, this is the crux (pardon the pun) of my argument that God did not abandon, did not reject, did not turn his back on, Jesus.
Next: the conclusion – there are some profound practical issues involved if we submit to the teaching of an abandoned Christ on the cross.
This is the fifth in a series in which I demonstrate that it is a false teaching to assert that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. If you are new to the series, please review the posts immediately preceding this entry.
I will admit two things at the front of this post. (1) this post will be the most philosophical of the series, and (2) I am in no way claiming that I am an expert in something as deep and varied as the theory of the atonement. However, the biblical texts themselves make it clear that God could not have abandoned Jesus on the cross, if God was going to achieve the purpose for which virtually every Christian, including the “separationists,” claims that he did achieve – namely, the redemption and reclamation of his people.
Scriptures to consider: Romans 6:1-4, 8:1-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Colossians 1:15-23, Hebrews 2:9-18, 5:7-10, 9:11-10:18, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Revelation 5:9
To begin with I will make what initially seems to be a brash statement, but upon further review is absolutely true. There is not one single passage of Scripture from Acts – Revelation that even hints that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. Not one single passage. Not one allusion. Not one hint. None. It simply was not, and is not, a New Testament concept. In fact, the concept is so foreign to the New Testament that I do not understand where the idea originated. The only passage that can even remotely be used in defense of this teaching is, to no great surprise, a refutation of that teaching.
First, let us see how the New Testament writers viewed Jesus’s death. The primary text here is the book of Hebrews. From beginning to end the letter (sermon) extols the uniqueness and superiority of the sacrifice of Jesus as compared to the earthly sacrifices of the physical temple. The entire book needs to be read in this context, but notice 9:23-10:10 in particular. Nowhere in this section (nor in the entire book) can you find a place for God’s rejection of Jesus. It just will not fit the theology.
Read also Romans 6:1-14 and 8:1-11. Here again there is no room for an abandonment, a rejection of Jesus by God. The language Paul uses cannot be twisted around “Jesus was accounted to be sin, so God had to turn his back on him.” Paul’s theory of the atonement is undone if Christ was so wretched, so impregnated with our sin, that God could not look upon him (once again, twisting Habakkuk 1:13 to get to that viewpoint).
We have already noticed John 1:1-18 in regard to the trinity, but notice how in the introduction to his book here, John weaves in the idea of the atonement. It is because Jesus was “with God and was God” that through his “fullness we have received, grace upon grace.” A fractured, abandoned and rejected Jesus can hardly be considered to be in the “fulness” of God.
Now let’s look at 2 Corinthians 5:21, the one verse that “separationists” hang onto with all their might to rescue their fallacious theory:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (RSV)
The “separationists” focus on one little phrase, “he made him to be sin” and overlook the entire context of the passage. Let us undo that mistake.
To begin with, the chapter in which this verse is found is not an explanation of the atonement at all. It is a defense of the role of the minister, an ambassador for Christ. Paul is defending his role specifically, and explaining why he does what he does. So, if he preaches relentlessly, because he is convinced that Christ died for all men, what does it mean that Christ died for all men? That is the “digression” that begins in v. 16. By Christ’s death he has made all men new. This is “from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself” The phraseology is important here. Paul states that it was through Christ that God reconciled man to himself. He continues in the next sentence by saying, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Now, we have “in Christ.” So it was in and through Christ that God accomplished the reconciliation. How did this occur? Paul is not specific (in fact, in the entire New Testament there is no one, single, clear explanation of the atonement), but he does go on then with the verse highlighted above.
Note in this section what Paul does NOT say. Paul does NOT say that Jesus was made to be sinful. This would contradict the entire book of Hebrews, noted above. Paul also does NOT say here, and here would be THE perfect place for him to say it, that God abandoned or rejected Jesus at any point in time. In fact, taken in its context, Paul is arguing the exact OPPOSITE. He is telling the Corinthian Christians that the death of Jesus was entirely God’s will and plan, and that it was exactly in and through this death that God accomplished his goal of reconciliation with mankind.
Now, I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it just seems to me that if you reject the very thing that you willed and that you planned, you can not then come back and say that it was the very thing that you rejected and abandoned that accomplished your will. Yet, this is the exact illogical argumentation that “separationists” want you to believe when they tell you that God rejected Jesus on the cross.
So, as a summation, we have here yet another illustration of the number of ways the “separationists” incorrectly interpret Scripture, twist other Scriptures, fail to follow clear lines of logic, and reject the overarching message of the entire New Testament.
But, I have just one more point to make as I close. As a matter of sheer luck (serendipity?), a preacher friend (who knows I am working through this project) showed me an interesting verse in the book of Exodus. I shall quote the passage in full to illustrate my point:
And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the LORD.” And you shall fasten it on the turban by a lace of blue; it shall be on the front of the turban. it shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take upon himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering which the people of Israel hallow as their holy gifts; it shall always be upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD. (Exodus 28:36-38 RSV, emphasis mine).
So, Aaron, the high priest, was to “take upon himself any guilt” of the people – and he was to take that guilt and atone for it before the ark on the day of atonement. And God never turned his back on Aaron, did he?
Kind of makes you want to go back and pay more attention to the book of Hebrews, doesn’t it??
Next up – the impossibility of God abandoning Jesus as demonstrated in the chronology of the crucifixion.
So far in this series of posts I have examined Psalm 22, Habakkuk 1:13, and the nature of the trinity as arguments against the mistaken belief that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. At this point if you agree with me you are probably saying, “Enough, you made your point, what could be more clear?” Of course, if you disagree with me you are probably not reading this post at all, so to go on further would kind of be silly anyway. But I am not done yet – I have a number or arguments yet to mention that further support the biblical view that God was entirely with Jesus on the cross.
Today I look at how Jesus himself rejected the idea that somehow the Father would abandon him on the cross. Consider first Jesus’s words in John 16:32:
The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. (RSV, emphasis mine.)
Now, a full fledged separationist (one who believes God did abandon Jesus on the cross) would point out that at this point in time Jesus was in fellowship with his father. What I want to point out is that Jesus never said, “At some point I will be alone” or “At some point the Father will abandon me.” He went out of his way to emphasize that at the point in time the disciples abandon him, he will not be alone, because his father (God) will be with him. If God did reject Jesus it was a complete shock to Jesus, and a repudiation of Jesus’s own words! I do not think many separationists stop to consider this verse, nor the one to follow:
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given them, that they may one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that show has sent me and has loved them even as thou has loved me. (John 17:20-23, RSV, emphasis mine)
Notice the purpose for which this prayer is prayed – the unity of all followers of Jesus. Notice the proof that Jesus gives that such believers can be, and should be, perfectly one. That proof is the unity of God and Jesus. If that unity is destroyed, then the argument Jesus makes that all disciples should be one is also destroyed. If God can abandon Jesus, why then can Jesus’s disciples not abandon one another in times of stress and persecution? The theory of God abandoning Jesus simply destroys the concept of the trinity (last post) and invalidates the promises and prayers that Jesus spoke immediately before his death.
So, just to recap: if you believe that God abandoned Jesus you have to (1) twist Psalm 22 to mean something it most definitely does not mean. You have to also (2) take Habakkuk 1:13 out of context and make Habakkuk mean something for all time and eternity that he said once, that God later corrected him for saying, and that Habakkuk himself refuted toward the end of his writing. Finally, you have to reject all the biblical teachings of the unity and indivisible nature of the trinity, up to and including disregarding, or even disavowing, the very words of Jesus to his disciples.
It just seems to me to be an awful amount of work to do to defend a teaching that was rejected in the first couple of centuries as being heresy. Why would you want to?
Next: The New Testament (and indeed the biblical) doctrine of the atonement refutes the idea the God abandoned Jesus.
Note: in the first two installments of this series I discussed Psalm 22 and Habakkuk 1:13. If you have not read those posts please refer to them as well.
The first two posts in this series dealt with two arguments in favor of the belief that God abandoned Jesus on the cross from a scriptural point of view. Both arguments were shown to be false. In Psalm 22 the psalmist himself declares that he was NOT forsaken, and in Habakkuk 1:13 it is clear that Habakkuk’s lament is NOT accepted by God, and he later demonstrates his error in a beautiful prayer and statement of faithful acceptance. With these two arguments from Scripture removed, we can now turn our attention to related evidence that further demonstrate that God did NOT forsake or abandon Jesus on the cross. The first is somewhat philosophical in nature, but certainly no less convincing. It is the argument from the very nature of God – the trinity.
To begin with I must admit that the idea of the trinity is a difficult one to understand. I’m quite sure I do not fully understand how the three aspects of God’s nature relate. Certainly the word “trinity” is never used in the Bible. However, there is much that we can learn about God’s essence, and though we will never understand everything, that does not mean we cannot understand that which has been explained to us. We must be very careful that we do not say too much, nor should we say too little.
Please consider the following Scriptures: Deuteronomy 6:4; John 1:1ff; John 4:26; John 8:24; John 8:58; John 9:35-37; John 13:19; John 17:1-26; and Colossians 1:15-23.
From those passages we can conclude that the greatest statement concerning the nature of God from the Israelite perspective is that He is One – singular, indivisible. There are not many gods, but one God, and He is One. This makes the passages in John even more compelling. John declared Jesus to be with God, and to even be God. Throughout his ministry Jesus declared his divine essence. The apostle Paul declared as much in his letter to the Colossians. For the early church there was no difficulty is confessing the singular essence of God while at the same time declaring that Jesus was this God. While this post is not necessarily concerned with the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit that completes the Godhead, the trinity.
How does this relate to the cross? Just this – those who suggest that God abandoned Jesus on the cross must accept that the this relationship was destroyed while Jesus was on the cross. Jesus ceased to be God. Jesus ceased to be “I am He.” Jesus ceased to be “I Am.” In fact, in one of the more popular presentations of this belief, the author clearly stated, “The trinity was ripped apart.”
As kindly and as gently as I can, while being as forceful as I can, I must say that this must be identified as pure heresy. How can God render his nature into separate pieces, and then discard one of those pieces? How can God violate his own essence, that which makes him God? How can Jesus be divine, participate in deity, and yet have that deity ripped from him?
In the first several centuries the church had to work through some very difficult questions, beginning with the nature of Jesus as both God and man. These discussions came to be known as the Christological controversies. Two teachings were clearly labeled as heretical for their opposite but equal repudiation of the deity and humanity of Christ. One was docetism, in which Jesus was viewed as pure spirit, pure God, with no real human attributes. He only seemed, or appeared, to be human. The opposite heresy was that Jesus was human alright, but there was nothing divine about his nature. He could not be human and divine, and he was obviously human, so the God part, the deity, had to go. Those who taught this belief were known as Ebionites.
When someone teaches that Jesus was forsaken on the cross, he is denying the deity of Jesus. The teaching that Jesus was somehow only human on the cross, and not God, is pure Ebionism. To argue that God abandoned Jesus on the cross is to say that God abandoned God. It is another way of saying that God was no longer God, that Jesus somehow in his most profound essence rejected Jesus himself. God, who in his trinitarian relationship is “One,” now ceases to be One. He becomes less than one. Once the trinity is ruptured, once Jesus ceases to be the “I Am,” then he becomes just another human being, broken and sinful, and at that point his death becomes merely tragic, not redemptive. A human being can sacrifice himself or herself for me, but a human being cannot redeem me to God. Only God can redeem his creation – and as the gospel of John emphatically and repeatedly declares, that is exactly what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus could only do this as God, not Jesus as sinner.
This argument is closely tied to the other issues that I will discuss in each of the forthcoming posts – the statements that Jesus himself made that refute the “separationists,” the violation of the New Testament doctrine of the atonement, major conflicts with the chronology of the crucifixion, and the profound spiritual implications that derive from the idea that God’s essence can be somehow ruptured and then repaired with no consequences.
As always, thank you for flying with me in the fog, and, agree or disagree with me, I do hope these posts stir you to greater and deeper study of the Scriptures.
Note: In the last post I discussed how Psalm 22 has been misinterpreted by some to indicate that Jesus was abandoned/forsaken by God on the cross. Today we look at Habakkuk 1:13
“Thou who art of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on wrong, why dost thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13, RSV)
If Psalm 22 is misunderstood and misinterpreted because of a lack of awareness and careful study, then Habakkuk does not even show up on the radar screen. Quick – tell me the last time you had a Bible class on Habakkuk. Tell me the last time you heard a sermon preached on Habakkuk. Tell me the last time you even read Habakkuk. If you use the old “analog” paper version of the text of the Bible, can you find Habakkuk without looking at the table of contents or thumbing your way through the “little prophets?” To be perfectly honest, I cannot. I know its around Amos somewhere – but that if I get to Malachi I’ve gone too far.
That is really a shame. Habakkuk is a beautiful depiction of a prophet’s struggle with the word of God. The story is written in the form of a dialogue – first Habakkuk speaks, God answers, Habakkuk responds to God’s declaration, God responds to Habakkuk again, and finally the prophecy ends with a beautiful prayer of faithfulness by Habakkuk. In some ways the story resembles Jeremiah, in others it resembles the story of Job. It is a powerful story in and of itself, and deserves far better treatment that we usually give to it.
In 1:1-4 Habakkuk puts forth his initial lament – God is simply not paying attention to his people, the law is being ignored or abused, and God is not doing anything about it. Habakkuk wonders why God has been so unresponsive to the prophet’s cries.
In 1:5-11 God responds, and in a manner that Habakkuk could never, and would never, have imagined! God is going to send the Babylonians to punish the guilty for their lawlessness. God will respond to the crimes and the situation that Habakkuk has described, but in a manner that is simply incomprehensible to Habakkuk.
1:12-2:1 records Habakkuk’s terrified (and somewhat petulant) response – God, you must be crazy! Surely there is a better way to fix the problem than by sending the Babylonians to punish Judah. Habakkuk basically tells God that God is better than that, everything that Habakkuk knows about God would tell him that God simply would not behave in such a ghastly manner. So, after amending his complaint and setting forth his argument, Habakkuk sets down to see how God will respond (very similar, I might add, to Jonah’s petulant response and pouting gesture after preaching to Nineveh and awaiting God’s response).
Chapter 2 contains God’s detailed response to Habakkuk’s complaint. Yes, God is aware of Babylon’s reputation, their immorality, their viciousness, their cruelty. God will punish them for these crimes, but first he must use them as his tool to punish faithless Judah. Chapter two ends with that triumphant declaration that gets minimized far too often as we turn it into a sing-songy little ditty – but God is letting Habakkuk know in no uncertain terms that he, God, is God, and he has everything under control, and that Habakkuk would be better served by being a prophet than by trying to be God. Habakkuk is unqualified for the position, thank you very much.
Chapter three contains one of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible. Habakkuk gets the message. He understands. He accepts his demotion. Although his initial response was one of terror and revulsion, he now quietly accepts God’s judgment, because he properly accepts his position relative to God’s wisdom and power:
“I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:16b-18)
The verse that the “separationists” (those who believe God abandoned Jesus on the cross) pull from Habakkuk to justify their position is 1:13, located in Habakkuk’s second lament, the one in which he rebukes God for planning to use the Babylonians to punish Judah. In context the statement is Habakkuk’s conclusion of how God should act, based on Habakkuk’s theology at that given moment. God is simply too pure, too perfect, too much “God” to use such a vicious and cruel people to fix the problem that Habakkuk had identified. The statement in question is not approved by God, and in fact, in the context of God’s correction of Habakkuk, we can confidently say that God is fully aware of the situation – his eyes are in fact NOT too pure to behold evil – but that he is utterly in control of the situation. Far from proving the point that the separationists want to make, taken in context the verse proves the exact opposite. Habakkuk is wrong. God does not need to be vindicated, Habakkuk needs to be corrected. (For what it is worth, compare Jeremiah’s bitter accusation against God in Jeremiah 20:7. Are we to take Jeremiah’s word as “gospel” and therefore declare that God is deceptive and a bully? See also Jeremiah 4:10)
Just think of the ways in which God not only was aware of evil, but actively inserted himself in evil situations to either end the evil or protect the righteous. God was certainly aware of Abraham’s lies, yet he delivered Pharaoh and protected Abimelech from the sin of taking Sarah as their wife. God certainly “saw” the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah (read Genesis 18:20-21!). Notice the verbs that are used to describe God’s involvement in the deliverance of his people from Egypt: God heard the Israelites’ groaning, he remembered his covenant, he saw their condition, and he knew their condition. This certainly does not sound to me like verbs that could be used if God was somehow incapable of viewing, or seeing, or becoming involved in a broken world. The passages taken from the Old Testament could be multiplied numerous times – but the point should be clear: God is NOT incapable of seeing nor of acting in a world in which there are sinful acts.
To turn to the New Testament we find God incarnate involving himself in scenes of evil and violence repeatedly – not to justify or promote or to participate in it but to overturn and destroy it. Jesus interjects himself in the attempted stoning of an adulterous woman. He casts wicked people out of the temple, he allows women of ill repute not only to touch him, but to weep profusely over him. On a daily basis Jesus inserted himself into a bent and broken world for the express purpose of bringing healing to that which was broken and to straighten out that which was bent. I will have much more to say about Jesus’s role in actively confronting evil in the next post as I discuss the importance of the trinity. Let this paragraph suffice to demonstrate that if God could not be in the presence of evil, then we have all kinds of theological problems as Jesus swam in a figurative ocean of evil and sin.
To aver that God had to abandon Jesus on the cross because “he could not bear to look on evil” is a violation of Scripture in a number of ways. It is a blatant twisting of a passage of Scripture out of context. It refuses to consider any conflicting information from other passages of Scripture. It is proof-texting in the worst possible manner. There is simply no other way to describe it. To use Habakkuk 1:13 to justify the erroneous teaching that God abandoned Jesus is just horrific theology. Let us be done with such practices.
Next: What about the trinity? What about the relationship between God and Jesus?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1)
When we begin to look at the mistaken idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross the first place we must turn is the opening line of Psalm 22. I find it incredible to discover that some people do not even know that Jesus was quoting Ps. 22:1 as he suffered on the cross, (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:35) but even those who do recognize the quotation have rarely bothered to discover WHY Jesus quoted that single verse. Examining the Psalm goes a long way toward refuting the claim that God abandoned Jesus on the cross.
As I understand the most common explanation of the “Separators” (as I will call them, those who believe God separated from Jesus on the cross), we can see that God had abandoned Jesus because Jesus addressed God with his formal title, “God,” as opposed to his familial relationship (“Abba father,” see Mark 14:36). This is either an admission that the speaker is not aware of Psalm 22:1, or rejects any specific connection to the Psalm. So, recognizing that Jesus was indeed quoting (verbatim, that is) from Psalm 22:1, is there any specific reason why he would choose that Psalm? Let us turn to Psalm 22 and read.
The first thing that we note in reading Psalm 22 is that the first 21 verses are among the most specific and emotionally laden laments in the Old Testament. It is an emotionally draining Psalm to read.
In the first 2 verses the psalmist sets the tone for the entire poem – he feels utterly rejected by God. He prays, but there is no response. This is a continual prayer, not a one-and-done prayer. It is un-ending, and fervent.
In verses 3-5 he confesses that this result is radically out of God’s nature. His entire faith has been built around the idea that God hears, God responds, God delivers. But he himself has found no hearing, no deliverance. This result is shocking, and deeply disturbing to the psalmist.
In verses 6-8 the psalmist returns to his misery – he even despairs of his life – he is a worm, and no man. Everyone who sees him mocks him. It is one thing to be in physical or emotional pain, but to have all his nearest friends turn from him is almost more than he can take.
In verses 9-11 there is a return to the way he thinks it ought to be – once upon a time God took care of the psalmist, why not now? The situation is desperate, almost critical. Where is God? Why is the God who once was there, no longer there?
Verses 12-18 contain the bulk of the lament, the most graphic and specific complaints. And it is in verses 12-18 that we see the greatest connection to the events of the crucifixion. Some have even used the word “prophetic” in regard to Psalm 22, but I do not like to think of the Psalms as prophecy. The psalmist is not “prophesying” anything – he is lamenting a very real and deplorable situation in his life – one the demands immediate attention from a God that has gone AWOL.
However, in verses 19-21 the psalmist returns to his faith – almost as if he is dredging up one more bucket of brackish water to his parched lips in the hopes that he can survive one more hour, one more day.
And then, right there in-between verse 21 and 22 there is a massive change. You cannot miss it – not if you read the Psalm for the Psalm and not try to make it something that it is not. The change in tone between 21 and 22 is palpable, and theologically as well as emotionally decisive.
The reader is not told what happens, but something earth changing happens to the psalmist. From verses 22-31 the psalmist is no longer in the mode of lament. The last third of the Psalm is pure rejoicing, celebration, and worship. It will not do for the psalmist to rejoice alone – no, he must go and proclaim his great good fortune to the assembly. And, pay very careful attention to verse 24
For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him (Ps. 22:24, RSV)
Psalm 22, the Psalm that begins with the plaintive cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” ends with the confession, rather the boisterous proclamation, that God never did forsake the psalmist, never did abandon the psalmist. The remainder of the psalm is one of the greatest affirmations of the glory and righteous rule of God anywhere in the Psalter.
Just for comparison, consider Psalm 73. The first 14 verses follow the same pattern as the early verses of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist complains bitterly and confesses that “…my feet had almost stumbled, my steps has well nigh slipped.” (v. 2) But, he did not stumble, his steps did not slip, because in v. 15 there is another one of those massive shifts, an “epiphany” if you will. The psalmist in Psalm 73 entered into the sanctuary of God and realized how wrong his earlier thoughts had been. We are not told of the circumstances of the shift in Psalm 22, but the result is remarkably similar. Psalm 22 and 73 and two examples of this transformative type of Psalm. They communicate through their words, to be sure, but their structure is critical to understanding the message of the psalm.
Why have I gone to such lengths to discuss Psalm 22? Because, when you remove Psalm 22 as a declaration of utter abandonment, it makes no sense whatsoever, especially no theological sense, to use the opening phrase as a declaration of Jesus’s abandonment on the cross. If the psalmist was not abandoned, how can this verse be used as evidence that Jesus was abandoned? Do the “separators” believe that Jesus was so ignorant of the Psalm that he was quoting that he did not know it was a raucous anthem of the presence of God and ultimate deliverance? What kind of theological illiterate do some of these individuals think that Jesus was?
There is a literary method of using one small part of a whole to refer to the entire body, it is called “synecdoche.” Many scholars believe that is exactly what Jesus is doing here with this Psalm as he quotes the first line on the cross. He is quoting a poem, or the first line at least, that ends in triumph. True, only the first line is quoted in the gospels, but that does not in and of itself mean he did not later quote more of the Psalm. Those who knew the Psalm would know how it ended, whether he finished the Psalm or not.
I have no way of knowing whether or not that is Jesus’s intention. We only have the first line, and we certainly cannot read Jesus’s mind as he suffered on the cross. But this much is clear – he is not quoting a Psalm of abandonment and rejection, but a Psalm of great faith and worship.
Two more quick points and I must cease. First, I believe it is noteworthy that both Matthew and Mark drew attention to the quotation of the Psalm NOT because of the content of the opening line, but because everyone in hearing distance MISUNDERSTOOD what Jesus was saying, and they believed he was calling for Elijah to come and rescue him. It is as if the evangelists were drawing specific attention to the fact that even in his last few minutes on this earth, Jesus was still being misunderstood and misinterpreted. Sadly, that misinterpretation continues even today.
And, finally, I cannot leave Psalm 22 without making the point that canonically, the lament (and therefore the great rejoicing) of Psalm 22 leads directly into the most beloved of all Psalms of God’s presence – Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd.” This was not an accident of just throwing some poems down on the table and seeing which came up first. This structure is intentional, and the juxtaposition of Psalm 22 and 23 is profound. God not not abandon. God does not desert. God does not forsake. Indeed, God, the LORD, is my shepherd. I fear nothing, need nothing, but am tenderly loved and cared for.
He did not abandon any Israelite psalmist, and he certainly did not do so to his own Son, Jesus.
Next installment: The misunderstanding of Habakkuk 1:13