Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Two Books on the Atonement

I’m about half-way through a book which I suspect will be in my top 10 reads of 2014:

Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 305pp., ISBN 978-0-310-516743.

It ticks a lot of my boxes:

• A foreword by Michael Horton
• The written-up version of a Wheaton PhD carried out under the supervision of Kevin Vanhoozer
• But readable and highly accessible, in relatively short chapters, with helpful structural indicators, and main points summarised at the end of sections and at segues between chapters
• A worked example of the value of interrogating a topic (atonement in this case) from the perspective of both biblical theology and systematic theology in a way that tries to draw lines between those two disciplines
• Shows a way through some of the false divides often created between biblical theology and systematic theology, Old Testament and New Testament, covenant and kingdom, Jesus and Paul, gospels and letters, etc.
• Reformed, but not uncritical of that tradition where he disagrees with it
• Written with devotional warmth and respect for Scripture and tradition

Essentially, from my reading so far, what Treat is offering is an expansive perspective on the atonement, bringing together the kingdom and the cross. As he summarises at one point: ‘[T]he Bible is a redemptive story of a crucified Messiah who will establish God’s kingdom on earth through his atoning death on the cross. This unfolding story of victory through sacrifice is the tapestry in which kingdom and cross are interwoven’ (129).

For those interested in exploring further, there’s an interview with the author here, and early reviews of the book here, here, here, and here.

Also just out, looking at the atonement from a more expanded perspective is this:

Michael J. Gorman, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene: Cascade, 2014), xii + 277pp., ISBN 978-1-62032-655-8.

In the Introduction, Gorman suggests that ‘most interpretations of the atonement concentrate on the penultimate rather than the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ death’ (2). For Gorman, the over-emphasis on how Jesus’ death brings atonement risks distracting us from seeing ‘that the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ death was to create a transformed people, a (new) people living out a (new) covenant relationship with God together’ (3).

I’m really looking forward to reading this too, though my sense at this stage is that discussion of the effects of Jesus’ death, or its relationship to ‘covenant’, may not be quite as missing as Gorman seems to think. However, that may be because I’m currently reading Treat’s book which does place atonement on a yet wider cosmic stage of ‘the restoration of human vicegerency’ (120), where ‘what the world was created for, and what was lost in Adam and Israel, has been regained in Christ’ (143).

Again, for those interested, there’s a two-part interview with Michael Gorman here and here, and an early short reflection on the book here.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Love at Ephesus (3): Walking in Love

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live [walk] a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God... Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Ephesians 5:1-2, 25

Walking is one of Paul’s favourite images to describe Christian living – hence the reason why many English translations use the word ‘live’ in places where it occurs. In Ephesians, Paul first uses it to describe our transformation from walking ‘in transgressions and sins’ (2:1-2) to walking in ‘good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (2:10). But the metaphor then punctuates the last three chapters of the letter (4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15) as he calls God’s people to walk in a way that fits their status as the new humanity in Christ.

Here, addressing us as ‘dearly loved children’, Paul calls us to ‘walk in love’. Adopted into God’s family, we’re to bear the family likeness, imitating our Father. It’s such a love that sustains our life together as God’s people, made concrete in the ongoing transformation Paul describes: giving up lies, hostility, stealing, unwholesome talk, bitterness and anger, being honest in our work, building up one another, being kind and compassionate. Such a love goes to the heart of the gospel, patterned as it is on the supreme example of Christ’s own self-giving for us.

What applies to believers generally is applied to husbands specifically as Paul uses the same words later when he says ‘love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (5:25). Note that the husband is not called to ‘rule’ or ‘exercise his headship’, but to love. In fact, this is the only command to husbands in the section, and it’s repeated three times (5:25, 28, 33) to reinforce the point! And once again, the measure of love is nothing less than the gospel: as Christ loved the church. It’s the example and empowerment of Christ which enables such sacrificial, serving, selfless love – not just on special occasions but in the daily round of life.

That’s why the walking metaphor is so apt. Walking suggests a regular pattern – ongoing, rhythmic, steady, almost unconsciously carried out – which takes place in the everyday where we live and work – in the home, at the office, on the school run, in the checkout queue. In such contexts, it’s the consistent, everyday actions that make a difference, as we continue to walk step-by-step in our lifelong process of transformation into the likeness of Christ through the ongoing work of the Spirit.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Woolf Institute

A friend recently alerted me to the existence of the Woolf Institute. According to its website:

‘The purpose of the Woolf Institute is to serve the public good. The Institute studies how relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims can enhance our understanding of key concepts of public life: community and identity, mutual respect, personal responsibility, and social solidarity. Combining theology with the social sciences and the humanities, the Woolf Institute seeks to strengthen the ethical framework that is needed for our political, economic and social life.’

Among resources it produces is an annual magazine, Perspectives, which includes individual issues devoted to Faith and Narratives, Movement and Migration, Translation and Interpretation, Marginalised Minorities, and Faith and Reason.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Credo Magazine 4, 3 (July 2014)

The current issue of Credo is out, this one devoted to ‘George Whitefield at 300’.

According to the editorial blurb:

This year, 2014, marks the 300th anniversary of Whitefield’s birth. These articles are meant to drive us back to Whitefield’s day, that we might eat up his theology, and drink deeply his passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ.’

The magazine is available to read here, from where a 16.6 MB pdf of the whole issue can also be downloaded.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

More from the Centre for Public Christianity (July 2014)

The Centre for Public Christianity adds to its offerings already this month with an audio interview with Nick Spencer about the argument of his most-recent book, Atheists: The Origin of the Species, a video interview with Miroslav Volf on ‘how forgiveness can appear irrational yet actually make sense’, and a video interview with Francis Spufford, whose book Unapologetic ‘makes a stirring defence of Christian emotions, claiming that they make a compelling case for the way faith can function in the 21st century’.

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Cross

Around this time last year, I was asked to write a 750-word piece on the cross for a product related to the showing of the recent TV production of The Bible. Below is a fairly heavily referenced draft of the article.

The cross – as God’s way of dealing with sin and its consequences – stands at the heart of the Christian faith. The term traditionally associated with exploring its significance is ‘atonement’, encouraging us to see the cross as God bringing about ‘at-one-ment’.

Affirming the centrality of the cross

All four gospels devote considerable space to Jesus’ death. Not for nothing have they been called ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’. Jesus proclaims the arrival of God’s reign in his teaching and acts of power. But as the gospels move on, it becomes clear that the liberating reign of God will come about through Jesus taking on the role of a servant who would suffer and die on behalf of others. That this happens at Passover gives his death an ‘exodus’ flavour, as Jesus brings about a new release for the people of God, sealing a new covenant in his body and blood – for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:26–28).

Jesus’ death is consistently understood by New Testament writers as tackling sin. An early confession of faith – in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 – declares that ‘Christ died for our sins’. Other passages (Romans 3:25–26; 4:25; 2 Corinthians 5:15, 21; Galatians 3:10–14; 1 Peter 3:18) provide equally clear statements of the substitutionary nature of his sin-bearing death. According to Paul, we were ‘God’s enemies’ (Romans 5:10), ‘alienated from God’ (Colossians 1:21), and ‘deserving of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3, explored more fully in Romans 1:18–3:20). What happened at the cross is bound up with God’s holy anger against sin, which would bring his judgment were it not that Jesus bears it in our place (Romans 8:3; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24), providing an atoning sacrifice (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 7:27; 9:14; 1 John 1:7; 2:2; 4:10).

This was anticipated in the law for dealing with sin, particularly the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). As Peter makes clear (1 Peter 2:21–25), it was also prefigured in the Servant of the Lord of Isaiah 53, suffering and dying on behalf of others, bearing the penalty of their sins.

Grasping the significance of the cross

Various images describe what Jesus’ death achieved. The cross not only saves us from the consequences of sin, but allows us to be declared ‘right’ – justified – before God (Galatians 2:15–21; Romans 3:23; 5:1), results in victory over Satan and the powers of darkness (Colossians 2:13–15; Hebrews 2:14–15), redeems us from slavery to sin (Romans 3:24; 6:11–23; Colossians 1:14; 1 Peter 1:18–19; Revelation 1:5; 5:9), reconciles us to God and with each other (Romans 5:10–11; 2 Corinthians 5:18–21; Ephesians 2:14–18; Colossians 1:19–22), brings about adoption into God’s family (Romans 8:16, 23; Galatians 4:4–7; Ephesians 1:5), and more besides.

Crucially, all this flows from God’s love. Crude caricatures of the cross can make God sound vindictive and distant, but nothing could be further from the truth. The link between God’s love and the giving of Jesus – expressed in John 3:16 – is seen elsewhere too (John 13:1; 15:13; Romans 5:8; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 5:2, 25; Titus 3:4–5; 1 John 3:16; 4:9–10). Far from involving a cold transaction, atonement is rooted in the heart and actions of the triune God – the overflowing love of the Father, the redeeming death of the son, the applying grace of the Holy Spirit.

Even then, the cross is not the end, for God raised Jesus to be ‘Lord’ (Philippians 2:5–11). Moreover, for all their centrality, the crucifixion and resurrection need to be placed in a yet larger story – as the means of God’s plan to restore ‘all things’ (Colossians 1:20), liberating men and women and renewing creation itself.

Following the pattern of the cross

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper provide ongoing reminders of the significance of the cross. Baptism depicts dying and being raised ‘in Christ’ (Romans 6:3–4; Colossians 2:12). The Lord’s Supper proclaims the Lord’s death ‘until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:23–26). Meanwhile, as we take up our cross (Luke 9:23) and conform to its pattern (John 13:15; Ephesians 5:25; Philippians 2:5–11; Hebrews 12:3; 1 Peter 2:21), Christian discipleship becomes ‘cruciform’ in shape, with the cross influencing and defining our everyday lives as followers of Jesus.

Love at Ephesus (2): Truth in Love

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love... Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:2, 15-16

What are you going to be when you grow up? For many of us, it was a dreaded adult question; for some of us, perhaps, it still is! At heart, though, it presupposes the significance of ongoing development, maturity, direction, intention, purpose. As such, it’s a good question for Christian communities to ask of themselves. Paul provides an answer in Ephesians, which is that when the church reaches maturity, it will attain to ‘the whole measure of the fulness of Christ’ (4:13). It assumes we still have growing to do.

By this point, Paul has outlined the great plan of God to bring all things together in Christ, a scheme which has already had its beginning in the church, the creation of a new humanity in Christ, in whom God dwells by the Spirit. It’s on the basis of this new identity that Paul brings a series of exhortations to the church, the first of which is to guard the unity entrusted to them.

Those who have been ‘rooted and established in love’ (3:17) are now asked to live accordingly, ‘bearing with one another in love’ (4:2), being willing to endure discomfort for the sake of others rather than asserting their own rights.

And we need love, Paul says, in order to become mature. We grow out of infancy into adulthood by ‘speaking the truth in love’ (4:15). Crucially, this is not in the first place about speaking honestly to one another; it’s better understood as confessing the truth to one another. Where the church is at risk of falsehood being spread in a deceptive manner (4:14), truth needs to be confessed in a loving manner. I am less likely to be unstable and immature if my fellow believers are constantly reminding me of the message of truth, particularly if they are doing so from a loving heart, concerned about the growth of the body. Truth embodied in love.

Here, then, is a vision of a church where each member lives for the wellbeing of the whole body as we grow and build one another up in love. So it is that the ‘in love’ of 4:2 is repeated in 4:15 and then again in 4:16, describing the sphere in which Christian living takes place, the atmosphere in which all-member ministry happens, the most conducive climate in which church growth occurs – and the direction in every case is towards Christ.