(Note: this should probably go without saying, but this is my reaction to a recent series of events, so, if you have another take on the discussion, good on ‘ya.)
Another “tempest in a teapot” amid a larger hurricane has erupted in the fellowship of the Churches of Christ. To summarize, Matthew Morine wrote an article in the Gospel Advocate excoriating those who advocate for gender egalitarianism in the Churches of Christ. Deeply offended, yet feigning magnanimity, Mike Cope responded in Wineskins, excoriating Matthew Morine and anyone who would dare agree with him. Together the two articles accomplished nothing but to establish that a deep division regarding this issue has already occurred in the Churches of Christ. Unless one side or the other experiences a major manifestation of the Holy Spirit, there will be no repairing it.
First, a little background for those who might be confused. Matthew Morine’s article in the GA was written as red meat for the most entrenched, conservative segment of the brotherhood. It was something akin to a warm-up before the key-note speech at a political convention. Was it thoughtful, carefully reasoned, and tactfully delivered? No, no and no. I’m not sure it was supposed to be. Morine is something of a wunderkind to the conservative right, and he is a favorite author in the GA fold. Mike Cope, on the other hand, is one confirmed miracle away from being canonized as a saint in the progressive left of the brotherhood. His writings serve as the red meat entree for the progressives. Politically speaking, Cope is Barak Obama to Matthew Morine’s Ted Cruz. It is matter, meet anti-matter.
The problem is that Morine has expressed (however provocatively) a concern that many – conservative or moderate – feel is a legitimate critique of the egalitarian left’s position: it is biblically and theologically weak, fueled mainly, if not exclusively, by cultural pressure. Cope, presented with an opportunity to take the high road and explain his position in clear biblical terms, totally wiffed, choosing rather to express his umbrage that Morine would dare attack his motives.
Well, at the severe risk of causing Cope and his followers even more emotional pain, a great many people do look at his conclusions and question his motives. Morine may have been too acerbic (actually, he was too acerbic), but his challenge was spot-on. I would say that my main problem with Morine’s content was that he misidentified the hypocrisy of the egalitarian left. It is within that element of the brotherhood that the loudest complaints about “proof-texting” a position can be heard. Yet, when it comes to gender egalitarianism, their entire argument is built on one single verse from the book of Galatians, and it is completely taken out of context, and twisted into something Paul never intended. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
Neither Cope, nor any other egalitarian I have read, has adequately addressed Morine’s basic observation: their position is based on a misinterpretation and misapplication of Galatians 3:27-28, and in order to defend this misinterpretation, they must either excise or condescendingly dismiss several other passages of Scripture which contradict their position. Harrumph if you want, but throwing a temper-tantrum when your conclusions are challenged is not an effective apologetic technique.
The issue as I see it is that both Morine and Cope are speaking in an echo chamber and talk completely past each other. Morine could have been, and should have been, much more respectful. He, or someone at GA should have edited his article to be less acerbic and confrontational. Cope totally missed Morine’s point, choosing rather to express hurt feelings rather than address issues. I honestly have to ask why Cope was even concerned with Morine and the GA. Does he even think that his readers are going to care about the GA?
I said above, and I fully believe, that a schism equal to the instrumental music division of the last century has already occurred within the Churches of Christ. Just as it is impossible for two groups to worship simultaneously with and without instruments (however congregations try to paper over this division with “separate” worships services), you cannot worship simultaneously as a male-led congregation and a matriarchy. Just my opinion here, but it seems to me that there needs to be a clean break and we need to stop this illusion that we are all one big happy family. There needs to be a “Churches of Christ” and a “Churches of Christ / Instrumental and Egalitarian” (Funny, but the two “improvements” are virtually inseparable.)
One other observation about Cope’s response. He added that his “journey” from a male-led leadership to an egalitarian position was “painful.” That is a common thread in “journeys” from traditional convictions to progressive ones. I wonder why that is? If you move from a conviction that worship in song should be acapella to an acceptance of instrumental music, your “journey” is harrowing, painful and gut-wrenching. Why? It seems to me that if you can throw off the shackles of hundreds of years of bad exegesis and even worse theology, the process would be enlightening, exhilarating, and joyful. Same with egalitarianism. Why the angst? Why the pain? It seems to me that if you can scrape 2,000 years of encrusted barnacles of patriarchy off of your congregational cruise ship, why would that be so painful? I would think you would be ecstatic. The whole thing just sounds a little too “Oprah Winfrey” to pass my sniff test.
If someone can explain to me, using established methods of exegesis and hermeneutics, how Galatians 3:27-28 can have any association with male or female leadership in the Lord’s church, I am ready to listen (or read). If anyone can explain how Paul can be so clearly right in Galatians 3:27-28, but be so clearly wrong in Corinthians and Timothy, let me know. If someone can convince me that Jesus could overturn virtually every oppressive and Spirit-rejecting religious aspect of his culture but the one issue of male spiritual leadership – please enlighten me. But, be forewarned, my obfuscation meter is set to high sensitivity – so don’t try the “Hillary Clinton” condescension trick or the “Bart Ehrman” re-write the New Testament trick. As the old saying in this part of the country goes, this ain’t my first rodeo, ma’am.
(Note: I have been informed that Matthew Morine was queried about the article by the GA editorial staff, and wanted the article to be published as it was written, and so I retract my comments about the editors at GA missing an opportunity here to help Matthew.)
Yesterday I shared how I almost came to hate the guitar – something that for virtually all of my life I have loved. I focused on how my instructors (who were undoubtedly good people, and who only had the best intentions, I am sure) almost drove my love of the instrument from me. I drew the conclusion that as teachers we have a tremendous burden, and responsibility, not to kill our student’s love of the Bible by promoting our own agendas. Today I want to look at the equal but opposite issue of a lack of desire and love of the Bible by many who would consider themselves faithful Christians.
Now, right of the bat I want to explain that I KNOW we are not supposed to worship or venerate the Bible. It is the word of God that points us to the Word of God – we are to love and worship God and his Son, not the message that teaches us about God and his Son. However, just as a musician loves the piece of paper that contains the notes that he or she will eventually transform into a glorious piece of music, so too we must love the medium that leads us to the author of our faith. And, for Christians, that medium is the Bible.
I understand my observations here are largely anecdotal, but in my half-century or so in observing the church I have noticed a decline in the interest in serious Bible study. I believe there are several reasons for this decline – some more understandable than others, but real never-the-less:
- As I mentioned yesterday, I believe bad teachers drive a love of Bible study away from us. On the one hand are teachers that make it sound like they, and they alone, can climb Mt. Biblius, the great peak from which all spiritual wisdom is obtained. Only they can see the great truths of the subject at hand (which makes we wonder if that truth is even there, but that is another story). Everyone else in the class is just plain ignorant, and this teacher communicates that feeling in a number of verbal and non-verbal ways. On the other hand is the teacher who never comes to class prepared, quickly reads over the class text about 10 minutes before class starts, and then “teaches” a class that revolves around reading one verse at a time, and then asking that most penetrating of questions, “What do you think [insert author here] meant when he wrote that?” Brilliant discussion question, that.
- There is a pervading sense of anti-intellectualism among Christians, and I have especially seen and heard that mentality expressed among members of the Churches of Christ. It is almost as if class members prefer their teacher to be uneducated – that way if they say something that is incorrect (or even incomprehensible) they cannot be corrected. There is something intimidating about being the presence of someone who can answer virtually any question you throw at them, and when it comes to questions of religion, sometimes we do not want all our questions answered or statements evaluated. I find that this is ONLY in regard to the Bible, as NO ONE wants a surgeon who barely squeaked by with C’s or D’s on his transcript, or a lawyer that passed the bar exam on his 10th try by answering one question correct more than the minimum needed to pass. We want the best surgeons to open our bodies, the best lawyers to argue our cases, the best pilots to fly our airplanes; I would suggest we need to demand the best Bible teachers as well.
- With regard to full time ministers, we do not allow for the kind of study required to actually teach a Bible class. If uncle Bob goes in for a 6 hour surgery, we expect Bro. Jones to sit with the family in the waiting room for every minute of those 6 hours. Plus there is the Kiwanis Club meeting, the luncheon at the Senior Center, 15 absentees to visit and cajole, and the ever-present high school football game or drama presentation. Between phone calls and “drop-in” visits, the average preacher gets to spend maybe an hour or so on his Bible class lesson (the rest of his non-existent preparation time is devoted to his sermon or sermons). With our demands on his time, we are in effect telling the minister – “Hey, we really do not want in-depth Bible lessons – just give us the warmed-over re-runs from some lesson you prepared in the past. We are not going to remember what you say 15 minutes after class anyway, so why spend so much time preparing your lesson?”
And that leads me to my final point – and the bookend to my last post. Many preachers and teachers can get by with teaching pabulum simply because the audience does not care. In their mind they can check the box that says “Attended Bible Study” and that is all that matters. The actual content is inconsequential, and actually if the teacher makes demands of time and mental acuity, the response is emphatically negative. How dare the teacher demand that the students actually buy a study book? How dare the teacher demand that the student perform homework? How dare the teacher expect that the text for the lesson be read and studied before the class period begins? How dare the teacher expect that the student actually does something with the lesson (like put it into concrete, identifiable, practices)?
I stated yesterday, and I firmly believe, that teachers bear a tremendous burden. That burden is to nurture and support the love of learning that a student brings to a Bible class. It may be ugly, it may be messy, it may not fit the “technique” that a teacher has in mind, but the goal of education is the transformation of a life, and if a student comes wanting to learn, the teacher must find a way to help that student learn.
But there are some things a teacher cannot do – and chief among them is to create that love of learning. I have stood, Sunday after Sunday, in front of a class of uninterested, uncaring, and unmotivated church members whose only purpose in being present is to fulfill a legal requirement. They do not want to to be challenged in any way – mentally or physically. They verbally say “We are here for Bible study” but their hearts are far from God. (See Isaiah 29:13-14; Proverbs 17:16) They sit with glazed-over eyes, or they trim their finger nails, or they fumble absentmindedly with some object they happened to have discovered on the pew or in their pocket.
Bad teachers are responsible for a number of sins. But when we as God’s children do not demand high-quality, serious Bible study, we should not be critical when we get the kind of lessons that put us to sleep and kill whatever interest there might have been in any kind of profitable Bible study.
I mentioned yesterday that the Bible is accessible – it can be mastered, though not in the sense that we can know everything about it or can answer every question that can be posed to us. But every part of the Bible can be taught, and can be understood, if the heart to learn and the heart to teach are both there.
God, give us a heart to learn! And, God, give us teachers who will not quit until our thirst for learning exceeds their thirst for teaching!
I love the guitar. As long as I can remember I have loved guitar music. But there was a time that I did hate the instrument. Oddly enough, it was when I was trying to learn how to play it.
Let’s just say my first two instructors were really accomplished. The first was a good salesman, and the second was a phenomenal player. Combined they made me hate the guitar. My first instructor was bent on making me learn possibly the only song he knew how to play. I did not know the song, and when he played it for me I hated it. I did not know how the song went so I never knew if I was playing it right or wrong. To be honest, it was such a bad song I could not tell if he was playing it correctly or not. Thankfully, he tired of me and recommended a classical guitar instructor. Great! Now I could go places.
The second instructor turned out to be the perfectionist from Hades. “Hold the guitar like this, bend your right hand like this, use your left hand like this, pluck the strings like this . . . ” I was not learning the guitar I was trying to placate a drill sergeant. The “pieces” he gave me to learn might have been great for developing his goose-stepping technique, but they had no musical value at all, and once again I had no idea if I was playing them correctly or incorrectly. They sounded just like random notes thrown on a treble clef. Yuck.
I finally quit taking lessons. I was wasting my parents’ money and I was growing to hate the guitar. I still loved guitar music, but actually handling a guitar was distasteful.
Several years later I needed to fill an elective slot in my schedule at college. A friend told me that the university had a fairly good guitar instructor, so I thought, “why not?” I could not do any worse than my first instructors, right?
The first lesson the instructor has me play of a couple of those unmusical, muse-foresaken practice etudes. Then he asked me something that I honestly had come to believe was illegal for any guitar instructor to ask. He said, “Paul, is there a piece of music you would like to learn this semester?” After I picked my jaw off the floor I kind of half-described and half-hummed a piece I absolutely adored, and gave him the name of the composer – Vivaldi. The next class period the instructor showed up with some yellowed, marked up music sheets – Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major. I could have cried. For the next three months the instructor patiently worked me through fingerings, technique, and, yes, hand position and the importance of practicing scales. But I was finally learning music, not just making noise.
I fear that too many interested Bible students are turned into Bible study haters through the exact same sequence that almost made me hate the guitar. And, sadly, I fear my “technique” has been all too often that of the guitar Nazi that was more concerned about the angle of my wrist than if I was actually learning how to play the instrument. It is easier to critique method and technique and style and posture than it is to simply ask, “Is there something about the Bible you want to learn?”
One thing I have learned through my experience as a teacher is that if we give some control of the learning situation to the student the result is often messy – out of tune and off-key. It is just awful, sort of like my butchered rendition of Vivaldi. But my university instructor knew something no other instructor I had before or since ever acknowledged – if I loved the guitar and the music, I would pay attention to his instruction so that I would get the sound right.
This semester I am getting to teach the fundamentals of biblical interpretation once again – by teaching a senior level course on apocalyptic literature and the book of Revelation. How can you teach the basic fundamentals of Bible study through such a complicated theological minefield like Revelation? Actually, it is not that hard. First, my students love the subject, so the motivation to learn is high. Second, I constantly remind them that Revelation is an accessible book if they apply themselves earnestly. Then, I break the “piece” into manageable sections, and introduce tricky “fingerings” slowly and carefully: Old Testament allusions, Greek verb tense variations, grammar and structure subtleties. I get to teach the importance of some critical techniques, but the subject matter keeps the students focused and the results of their effort is immediate rather than some mythological day in the future when they get everything “perfect.” Slowly but surely we are constructing a symphony of biblical interpretive beauty.
I wish I could say that my university teacher was the last and best experience I ever had with guitar instructors. Unfortunately, I chose another instructor who taught with the same mentality of the technique Nazi. Luckily I had my previous experience to remember, so cutting the string with him was not too painful (pardon the pun).
I will never be a concert guitarist. I never really wanted to be. But I did, and I still do, want to play my favorite songs and classical pieces well. I often wonder how my guitar playing would be different today if my earlier instructors had capitalized on my love of the instrument and my love of specific music pieces instead of focusing on perpetuating their concept of proper technique and musicality.
I do not think every person in a pew on Sunday morning wants to be a professional theologian. I do, however, believe that many of them want to know how to read and understand the totality of Scripture. But, just like the guitar, the Bible is a complex and sometimes daunting instrument. It can be learned, even mastered although never perfectly, but only if it is not turned into an instrument of torture.
I wonder, “How many really interested Bible students I have discouraged because I was focused more on my agenda rather than their love of the Bible?” I think all Bible teachers need to honestly consider that question.
(P.S. – I went through and corrected a couple of errors, and thought I would pass along that it was only the second movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major that I was really interested in, or even remotely capable of playing – the second movement, “Largo.” Give it a listen on YouTube. It is absolutely gorgeous.)
As promised, a review of the book that spurred my last post. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., (Nashville: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006) 352 pages.
I admit that the purchase of this book was more title and cover than anything. I knew nothing about the editors, or the authors. I soon discovered that the editors and authors of the individual chapters are committed Baptists, and they repeatedly made that point obvious throughout the book. That should be of little issue, unless you have a passionate dislike for Baptist authors. I try to be as eclectic in my reading as I can. My favorite (and the best academic book, IMHO) on the subject of baptism is by another Baptist, G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament. My favorite book on prayer was written my a Jesuit priest. So, I do not judge books by the authors, although I will sometimes buy one if the cover strikes me as interesting.
This book is a collection of 10 chapters, each written by a different author. The first three chapters cover the topic of baptism in the gospels, Luke-Acts combined, and the New Testament epistles. There follows chapters on Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants, Baptism in the Patristic Writings, Confessor Baptism (the Anabaptists), Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists, Meredith Kline and Suzerainty, Circumcision, and Baptism, and (very interesting to me) Baptism n the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, and concluding with a final chapter on Baptism in the Context of the Local Church.
Because this is a collection of works in one volume, it is to be expected that there would be some unevenness among the chapters, and that is most certainly the case. In my estimation the chapters ranged from the simply dreadful (and academically suspect) chapter on the Patristic Writings to an outstanding demonstration of proper academic writing in the chapter on Baptism and the Logic of the Reformed Paedobaptists and to a lesser degree in the chapter on Baptism in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (unfortunately, the author focused entirely on Campbell, which seriously affected his work. He should have named the chapter, “Baptism in the Writings of Alexander Campbell” as that is what he discussed.) The chapter on the Patristic writings was full of summary statements that had no documentation and other statements that were questionable as to whether the author took the quoted passage out of context. In contrast, the chapter on the the Reformed doctrine of paedobaptism provided adequate documentation and allowed the reader to decide (at least I believe it did) whether the passage was in or out of context.
The volume is valuable primarily as a defense of believer’s baptism (or, confessor’s baptism, as one author suggested). That is its intended purpose. It is not, and should not be used, for a text defining the purpose and meaning of baptism. For that purpose I suggest the aforementioned text by Beasley-Murray, or Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective by David Fletcher, or Baptism: A Biblical Study by Jack Cottrell. This volume is devoted specifically to the question of whether paedobaptism (infant baptism) is biblical, and seeks to explain the practice of paedobaptism especially within the Reformed (Calvinistic) evangelical churches. Very little mention is made of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran practices.
I genuinely enjoyed several of the chapters, especially the one on the Anabaptists. This chapter was among the strongest, and one that provided me with the most food for thought, both positively and negatively. I am becoming more and more convinced that the Churches of Christ should be paying more and more attention to the Anabaptist movement (with which we have tertiary connections), both for doctrine and especially for praxis.
The chapters covering the biblical texts were uneven, with some good insights and some aggravating defenses for the sake of denominational ties. On the other hand, there were examples of significant diversion from “standard” Baptist theology, with several examples where the authors stated that baptism is indeed inseparable from the forgiveness of sins (although, to be sure, each and every one of them rejected “baptismal regeneration” and salvation ex opere operato, salvation simply by the administration of baptism.) I found the chapter on baptism and the Restoration Movement to be extraordinarily even handed, and it was valuable to see the writings of Alexander Campbell through the lens of a Baptist theologian. I reject his suggestion that anyone should follow the lead of Oak Hills church in San Antonio Texas, because from my perspective that congregation has completely forsaken biblical teaching concerning baptism (among other things) and their heritage within the Churches of Christ, and I reject that they speak for anyone who wants to remain faithful to the Restoration plea.
One other note in passing. I wrote my last post before I read the concluding chapter, and in that chapter the author discussed the very question I raised among Churches of Christ. In that chapter he provided a statistic that among Baptist churches between the years 1977 and 1997, the numbers of baptisms of children under the age of six increased 250 percent! According to a doctoral dissertation that examined this phenomenon, one of the leading causes of this trend was, “social pressures on the pastor.” (p. 347). In an immediate classic turn of phrase, the author who reported the statistic referred to the practice as “infantile baptism.” (see page. 346, note 23. The title of the study is “The Practice of Infantile Baptism in Southern Baptist Churches and Subsequent Impact on Regenerate Church Membership” in Faith and Mission, vol. 18, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 74-87).
Overall this was an enlightening book, and one I can recommend for the express purpose of the discussion of infant baptism. As I mentioned earlier, if you are looking for an exposition on the meaning and purpose (theology) of baptism, you would be better advised to read Beasley-Murray, Fletcher or Cottrell. Fletcher’s book is particularly strong in examining the question of the relationship between baptism and the remission of sins. Beasley-Murray simply set the standard in terms of New Testament passages on baptism, and although the book is older, it is still well worth the purchase price.
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 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