Jump to content

Christianity Then And Now


Mike
 Share

Recommended Posts

I was having a conversation today about the atonement, which is obviously a pretty important subject in Christianity. And something NT Wright once pointed out really dawned on me: the apostolic Christians were in many ways more subtle and sophisticated in their theology than many denominations are today. To me this is kind of a surprising thesis, because you might expect Christianity to become more complex and nuanced after 2,000 years of Western history, not least after four hundred years of modern philosophy and science. But in many ways I think typical conservative evangelical theology has actually simplified the gospel message to a point where the new testament writers would not have recognized it.

 

I use the atonement for my example. Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church I was taught that Jesus paid for my sins on the cross, like a business transaction, so that God's demands could be met and we could be acquitted what we owed. And when I opened my bible and read 'Christ died for our sins,' I always read that idea into it.

 

But it really surprised me later on when I learned that this analogy of 'payment' is really unsupported in the new testament documents. If we are open to it, we can find a very robust and multifaceted understanding of the atonement throughout the various writings. It is hard to pin the atonement down to one meaning, and what's more, early Christians might not have wanted to find only one meaning it it.

 

So while it is difficult to define what the atonement is exclusively, we can note what the bible doesn't say it is. Never once, that I'm aware of, does the Bible say that God was so angry with us that he had to kill Jesus in order to appease his wrath or satisfy his "justice". The cross is never said to be a sign of God's anger. The cross never changed God's attitude about man. The cross, in scripture, is a symbol of love, and about a reconciliation of us to him; the cross changed nothing about God. Never once does the bible say that Jesus made a payment to God for our sins (debts). There is very little support to say that he died instead of us as our substitute. It does say that Jesus died for our sins, yet the word "for" can simply mean "for our benefit": he died for our gain. I really believe that Paul - that guy who lived almost 2,000 years ago and thought the world was about end - would look at today's evangelical/conservative/fundamentalist atonement theology and call it simplistic and one-dimensional to a fault.

 

My point in relating all this is to possibly talk about other examples of where apostolic theology, and new testament teaching, is more sophisticated than we often give it credit for based on rather narrow conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist interpretations. Since many of us come from this type of background, it might actually be pretty interesting to investigate where our received interpretations actually distort the nuances of the new testament's (often conflicting) teachings.

 

Anybody have any other examples? Or more to say about the atonement (even though we've already had several threads devoted to that subject specifically)?

 

Peace to you,

Mike

  • Upvote 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest billmc

Anybody have any other examples? Or more to say about the atonement (even though we've already had several threads devoted to that subject specifically)?

 

Good subject, Mike. Another example that I shared with my SS last weekend is how what we now call "the Lord's Supper" or communion started out as a shared meal, for the benefit of those who were hungry and to present an open table of fellowship. This is why Paul comes down hard on some Christians when they get to the meal early and basically eat up most of it while others who arrive later, because of their work schedules, go without and remain hungry. The meal was not simply about remembering Jesus' death, but about remembering that we are now his body on earth and should therefore love and care for one another.

 

But in my upbringing, communion was a time of confessing one's sins to God privately so that God would not strike me dead for unconfessed or unrepented sin. It was an opportunity, not for fellowship with the rest of the body, but for keeping my slate clean before God. And the communion was certainly no feast as it was in NT times, it was a tiny, dry, tasteless cracker that represented Jesus. And the cup represented his blood, which didn't symbolize the life found in him and his body, but the washing away of my private sins.

 

I have been in a couple of services where communion was actually remembered and celebrated as a meal. They were wonderful. So I think my relationship with what I call God is much more than a dry, tasteless cracker and constant confession of sin. And I'm finding a community of love instead of exclusion.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest billmc

Followup note: In Brian McLaren's book, "A New Kind of Christianity", he shares how when he started a home church in Maryland in the mid 90s, they had a young man attending who was originally from Kenya. After the meal they shared, the man sat with tears coming down his face. Brian asked him why he was sad and the man replied that his tears were tears of joy. He then explained to Brian that because he was, in his culture, "born of the third wife", he was not permitted to take communion in his culture's form of Christianity. Though the man had been a Christian for 20 years, it was in Brian's home that he first experienced true communion, because Brian said that EVERYONE was welcome at the table.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Mike,

 

I also feel as you have said "But in many ways I think typical conservative evangelical theology has actually simplified the gospel message to a point where the new testament writers would not have recognized it."

 

There are many examples of this besides the atonement.

 

Conservative theology points out that the NT is the "Word of God" when many of the NT letters speak of themselves as letters from Paul. Like wise the gospels are written as the gospels according to Mathew, Mark, Luke and John instead of God. The claim in Timothy often quoted to justify the NT as scripture or the word of God is not applicable as it was at the time only a letter to timothy and not yet at that time a part of what we now consider the Bible.

 

Conservative theology reveals Jesus as God in the flesh when the NT more often refers to Jesus claiming only to be a son or servant of God and one with God in Spirit which also we may make claim to also when we are in that same anointing.

 

Conservative theology says this is a sin and that is a sin much like black and white but the NT says whatsoever is not of faith is sin. Paul also said being in Christ "all things are lawful to me but all things are not expedient" In my view, there is a deeper understanding of sin that is not expressed in conservative theology. In NT teachings i personally find sin to be a violation of the law whether written or as Paul said unwritten such as the Gentiles which are a law unto themselves , the means while accusing or excusing one another. Walking in Spirit, which is total forgiveness of self and others to me, shows a spiritual law at work that is free from the law of sin and death and cannot be expressed accurately in black and white theology.

 

Conservative theology says we will be taken out of the world before the great tribulation. The words recorded of Jesus say in John "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one." There are many other examples that indicate to me that conservative theology has indeed simplified much of the writings that the writers may indeed not recognize.

 

Conservative theology says a lot about heaven and hell especially through song that is so weakly supported by a shallow understanding of symbols, parables and NT writings that i personally believe NT writers would also not recognize the message.

 

I have a few more but i will stop for now with these few examples.

 

Joseph

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest billmc

Anybody have any other examples?

 

Another area that I think was much more nuanced in NT times was what the scriptures refer to as "the kingdom of God." The evangelical training that I had growing up either defined this as going to heaven when you die or as the "millenial reign" of Christ physically on earth. Both of these views, while fairly simple, push the kingdom of God to another time and/or another place.

 

But when we look at this subject in both the Old and New Testaments, there is alot more complexity to the kingdom of God than just eternal bliss and streets of gold. Isaiah's visions of God's kingdom and Jesus' teachings about it are filled with colorful metaphors and seem to imply, not going to heaven someday, but a reality on earth that can be experienced today.

 

Anyway, there is alot more I could say about it, but just wanted to throw this subject out there and say that the kingdom of God seems to be much more than what currect Christian eschatology says it is.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't post much but I still read the board occasionally. This is an especially meaningful topic for me at this time in my life. Lately I've been reading Marcus Borg for the purpose of obtaining different doctrinal perspectives.

 

The atoning sacrifice and Christ Deity are two issues that I have yet to resolve to my satisfaction. My conservative indoctrination has proved to be a significant obstacle in my attempt to rethink many of the theological issues that trouble me. I’ve found the thoughts being expressed in this topic to be insightful.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Unlike many here, I was raised in a progressive environment and know very little about what passes today as fundamentalist theology. Several months ago, an aquaintance of mine invited me to see what his church was doing with an addiction recovery program that purports to meld the Bible with the principles of AA. I was, to put it mildly, a bit astounded at the message. Here was a group of people, recovering addicts, reciting the words of a song that included the phrase "this life is not worth living". Not a very good idea, IMO.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi Javelin,

 

Good to see you. I'm glad you are finding the thread interesting; I hope that my being overtly critical of the evangelical interpretation of the atonement wasn't offensive to you. I want to point out, as you may well be aware, that you need not look only to liberal theology for other views of atonement, as there have been many within the history of the church. I discovered that one interpretation focuses or centers around one theme, and while not necessarily excluding others, deemphasizes them. I think this occurs in the NT itself: that is why I see the atonement as multifaceted.

 

It seems to be a matter of historical accident that the loudest view, at least in conservative protestant/evangelical circles, is the 'payment' theology, where Jesus stepped into our place to pay off a debt that we couldn't in order to appease God's wrath. Perhaps the success of this view is in its simplicity: it's a very mechanistic, transactional idea. But I think it also raises more questions than it answers, and is generally unsupported in the new testament as I understand it. There are other interpretations that emphasize a more organic, participatory, covenantal nature of the atonement. Some interpretations are dependent upon Christ's divinity - this is very much emphasized as the atonement's central logic in the eastern church. There other Christian (like the Christadelphians) sects who find the notion of Christ's divinity totally irrelevant to the way the atonement works. I must confess that I never find Christ's divinity linked to the logic of how the atonement works in the new testament.

 

But I also must confess that Christ's divinity is a complicated issue that I'm otherwise not qualified to judge for sure either way. While I don't find anything recognizable as trinitarian theology in the new testament, it is clear (or unclear) in certain places that Christ is practically divine himself - he's prayed to, he appears in visions, he seems to be everywhere.

 

Anyway, I don't want to turn this thread into an atonement and divinity of Christ debate or discussion, just wanted to address your thoughts.

 

Peace to you,

Mike

Edited by Mike
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have enjoyed reading everyone's posts, and I intend to respond later. Till then, you've all given me something to chew on.

 

Peace!

-Mike

Edited by Mike
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi Javelin,

 

Good to see you. I'm glad you are finding the thread interesting; I hope that my being overtly critical of the evangelical interpretation of the atonement wasn't offensive to you. I want to point out, as you may well be aware, that you need not look only to liberal theology for other views of atonement, as there have been many within the history of the church. I discovered that one interpretation focuses or centers around one theme, and while not necessarily excluding others, deemphasizes them. I think this occurs in the NT itself: that is why I see the atonement as multifaceted.

 

 

I may not always agree with another poster's POV but I'm never offended. I routinely find much wisdom in your post Mike. I don't agree will all of Borg's conclusions but his writing is thought provoking. I find a great deal of logic and reason in most of his perspectives which has encouraged me to rethink many of my long held beliefs.

 

This has been an informative thread.

 

Javelin

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 4 weeks later...

Hi everyone. Better late than never to continue the discussion here. :)

 

I think we touched upon many important themes here already, including the evangelical notions of heaven and hell. I think the appeal of heaven and hell is, like the penal-substitution theory of the atonement, its on-the-surface simplicity. And it is another instance, to my mind, of where the New Testament is actually more nuanced (and actually more ethical) than standard conservative interpretations.

 

The conservative idea is that there is an afterlife for everyone and that there are two places any person can (and will) go: heaven and hell. Heaven is eternal bliss: sugar, spice, everything nice. Hell is just the opposite: eternal torture and agony and demons and brimstone, and everything nasty. And while the believers are having a grand time in heaven, unbelievers are having an inexpressibly miserable time in hell. Strangely, this doesn't bother anyone in heaven, or God.

 

Of course, none of this is anywhere in the new testament itself. The Pauline epistles expect that God will one day be 'all in all': divine peace and the kingdom of God will one day sweep away all that is evil. It makes absolutely no sense that at the very same time all this is supposed to be going on, God is also busy torturing everyone he doesn't like (which is most of the human race, as it turns out). Revelation says that death and hell would one day too be cast into the lake of fire (that is, be burnt up, annihilated). Again, no indication here of the hell of conservative theology.

 

Lastly, I'm not at all convinced that Jesus himself ever taught about hell. I think that that is a myth, and that Jesus was actually better than that. It is well established knowledge that the word 'hell' in our old English bibles attributed to Jesus actually refers to a dump outside the walls of Jerusalem where garbage was burned, not an immaterial place where people's souls go to be tormented for eternity.

 

Now, there is no doubt that Jesus used harsh language. Remember about that place where the worm dies not and the fire is not quenched? Doesn't sound nice, but conservatives never mind that it was lifted directly from Isaiah:

 

 

(NIV) Isaiah 66:18 "And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory.

 

19 "I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations—to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations. 20 And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD -on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels," says the LORD. "They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels. 21 And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites," says the LORD.

 

22 "As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me," declares the LORD, "so will your name and descendants endure. 23 From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me," says the LORD. 24 "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind."

 

No indication that those who rebelled are, in addition to being dead, also in a hypothetical spiritual body being burned in a place called hell.

 

Moreover, passages like this make little sense in light of the black-and-white heaven/hell theology:

 

47And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.

 

48But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

 

I go on further, but I think the point is obvious.

 

Another thing that conservative theology often oversimplifies to a fault is the relation of the Jews and Judaism to Christianity. I'll write a bit about that later.

 

Peace to you all,

Mike

Edited by Mike
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think one doctrine fundamentalist Christians oversimplify is the faith in the literal resurrection of Jesus. Fundamentalists believe that if the resurrection never happened, then there's no point in being a Christian and you might as well become a nihilist with no moral values. They base this on the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul speaks about how the resurrection of Jesus is essential to Christian faith. The problem is they stop half-way through the chapter and don't read the rest where Paul speaks about how it's impossible for a physical body to enter heaven. They also try to combine the doctrine of the resurrection with the doctrine of the ascension of Jesus which are not the same thing and nowhere in his letters does Paul say that you have to believe the ascension of Jesus is a literal fact to be a Christian, which fundamentalists are thinking about when they insist on the literalism of the resurrection. But at the beginning of chapter 15, Paul says Jesus appeared to the other apostles and 500 witnesses and all these appearances are the same as the resurrection appearance he experienced which was a vision of Jesus, not his literal body. Also, nowhere in his letters does Paul mention anything about the empty tomb or the stories in-between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. I think what Paul means when he says Christians are pitiable and still in their sins unless they believe in the risen Christ is that unless the church, which Paul often compares to the body of Christ, is able to rise up from their sins and transform their lives in a new resurrection, then they should be pitied and are still in their sins. The resurrection is not just a literal fact which happened once in history but a transformative spiritual experience we must encounter in our daily lives.

Edited by Neon Genesis
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

terms of service