November 13, 2007

Scot McKnight, Jesus and His Death

In Jesus and His Death, Scot McKnight undertakes a historical look at how Jesus understood his own death. He begins with a study of the "historiography" of Jesus studies, looking at the historical methods currently in use, often in the background, in studies about Jesus and the New Testament, broadly categorizing them as modernist or postmodernist in orientation. After surveying this turf, he goes on to investigate how Jesus' death has been understood in modern studies of Jesus, largely concluding that in many cases Jesus' death is a neglected or at least under-emphasized facet of his life. (Which, this seems odd considering it's prominence in Paul's theology; though on the other had that might partly explain it, considering the orientation of many of the Jesus studies these days.) He then goes on in chapter three to "reclaim" Jesus death as an important focus of study.

Part two of his book is an initial investigation into the role Jesus' death played in h is life. He begins by looking at the question of whether Jesus expected a premature death, concluding minimally that after John the baptizer's death, it couldn't have been far from Jesus mind; that is, his own death was a possibility. But he begins building from that point by moving on to consider whether Jesus considered it more than mere possibility, but also a probability; was it something he expected? To investigate this question, McKnight surveys many strands of the Gospel narratives, making the argument that though Jesus didn't want to die, he came to see it as a likely outcome of his ministry, and that he expressed this as having a "temporary presence" with his disciples, and further, that he saw his likely death as part of the Final Ordeal, infusing it with eschatological significance, even to the point of seeing his death as representative for his followers.

Part three of McKnight's study focuses more specifically on how Jesus understood his own death as atoning, and specifically if he understood it as a ransom. This focuses the discussion on Mark 10:45, the saying about Jesus' death being a ransom for many. In this investigation he looks at allusions to Isaiah, the context of the saying, and many other factors in evaluating the authenticity of the saying. And the verdict isn't clear. The possibility that it is a later addition is strong. So this leads McKnight to investigate the remainder of the Jesus tradition to see if the saying gains support from other places as something Jesus would have said. This includes looking at how Jesus understood his own role (was it like Isaiah's servant, a role that would point toward "ransom" language or more like a son of man or some other mold?), concluding that servant imagery didn't play a prominent role in Jesus' self-understanding, but that son-of-man imagery was prominent. His investigation continues, with studies of other "scripture prophets" to whom Jesus can be compared, and with the passion predictions. Then, in part four, he undertakes an in-depth study of the last supper traditions, to shed some light on how Jesus understood his life and death.

Ultimately, McKnight concludes that the ransom saying in Mark 10:45 is likely a Markan gloss, and that Mark indeed understood Jesus' death as a ransom for many, paying the price to liberate Jesus' followers from a hostile power. So what of Jesus and his death? His first emphasis is that "Jesus' mission is more than a 'mission to die'" (336). Though it indeed turned out to also be that. Jesus called on God to avoid his upcoming death, but ultimately saw it as his own role in God's providence. So what of atonement? Jesus saw his death as a representative death, having value for his followers, and probably even as vicarious, taking the place of others. This is intimately caught up with the fact that his death was part of the "Final Ordeal," the inbreaking of God's kingdom into the present and the fulfillment of God's plans for the world.

But more must be said. The early church didn't confine it's reflection of Jesus' death to these themes, but plumbed the depths of Scripture and reflected on Jesus' life and death to come up with deep, rich, and varied expressions of the significance of Jesus death. And McKnight finishes up his book surveying these developments. In the end, he points beyond the "how" of atonement to the "whereunto": "the design of the atonement," he writes, "is to create a community, an ecclesia, a koinonia, a zoe, a new creation" (371). That is where he sees the center of the New Testament's message about Jesus and his death, a message that goes back to Jesus himself. Jesus death "would protect them, liberate them, and usher them into the kingdom of God" (372). That's a pretty robust place to start in reflecting on the atonement.

I still have some digesting to do of this one. It is a great book, and quite an enjoyable read for being a careful academic study. He does a very good job of making the reader aware of the large themes in the New Testament, while also zeroing in on important passages. It was a little disconcerting, though, to have so many traditional sayings of Jesus dismantled and dismissed, at least as they go back to Jesus. His judgment at times seemed a bit tentative when it came to authenticating sayings, but that may also give the book its value, as it provides a very strong foundation upon which to build an understanding of Jesus' death: Jesus thought of his death in these ways, at least. McKnight is a gracious scholar with a passion for teaching, and I deeply appreciated this book, though it has also challenged my thinking, but also driven me to think more deeply about many important issues. With so many debates ranging today about atonement theories and atonement thinking, this book provides an important voice in the larger discussion.

Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book

In Eat This Book, Peterson continues the work he began in his masterful Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places to construct a "spiritual theology." And in this book, he takes up "spiritual reading." Peterson guides into an intentional encounter with the Bible by focusing not just on the fact that we read the Bible, but in focusing on how.

Peterson's focus can be summed up by the guiding metaphor that gives the book its title: eat this book. The metaphor comes from the book of Revelation, where an angel tells John the Seer to eat the scroll he gives him containing God's word. Peterson molds this rather cryptic command into a well-shaped image of how we should take the Bible in when we read it. Scripture isn't for external study, for quantifying or disecting, but it is first and foremost for taking in, digesting, and living.

Near the end of the book, Peterson contrasts two types of readings of the Bible, when he says that instead of treating the Bible as a "thing, an impersonal authority . . . to define or damn others" we should deal "with God's word in a personal, relational, and obedient way." This means acknowledging that it contains "words that mean, that reveal, that shape the soul, that generate saved lives, that form believing and obedient lives" (139-40). This is the journey he leads us on through this book. First recognizing that the Bible reveals a "strange new world," to use Barth's idea, and that we need to enter that world and be shaped by it. So he teaches us how to do that, by being carefully attuned listeners, obedient listeners.

I highly recommend this book. It has rekindled in me a passion for reading God's word, and helped remind me of how I should be doing it and why. We read God's word to be formed by it, and Peterson helps bring this home. Do not miss this book.

November 07, 2007

Torture, human rights, and life before God

After doing some reading on issues of torture this week, and also listening to the talk surrounding the nomination of Michael Mukasey for attorney general, I've been doing a lot of thinking about "human rights" and torture. First off, I have a visceral loathing of torture by the US government. It seems like the sort of thing only "other" countries would do. But all of that aside, on what grounds do I oppose torture. Is it some inalienable human right intrisic to our status as human beings that is the ground for my opposition, or is there more?

I've also been doing some reading about natural theology this week, as I read through Donald Bloesch's A Theology of Word and Spirit. And as someone who has been strongly influenced by Barth, he includes an extended discussion of just what Barth's opposition to natural theology was all about--the primacy of the revelation of God through Jesus Christ that stands above all other sources of knowledge about God. This opposed an approach that included seeing some intrinsic property within humanity that corresponded to the divine, or some intrinsic knowledge that humans have of who God is, whether through inner reflection or outward observation. While it is true that God's power and glory are reflected in creation and specifical in human beings, it isn't the ground of our knowledge of God, but is instead something that is distorted and leads to idolatry.

What does this all say about human rights? The ground of our knowlegde of God is God's address to us in Jesus Christ, and the same is true of our vaule as humans. We are indeed God's creation, but we have value precisely because God stands in relation to us, and all human beings are people related to God. That is the ground of our need to respect every individual's rights, because each person is a person who is and can be related to God, and who can receive God's grace and reconciliation through Jesus Christ. This leads to just the sorts of conclusions that the Bible would have us reach, like loving our neighbors as ourselves and wanting to treat them as we would want to be treated, because we all stand as humans before God. It also leads to leaving retribution up to God, just as Paul writes in Romans 12 that justice belongs to God, and we are to love our enemies (echoing Jesus' Sermon on the Mount).

I am certainly not working out all the details of what it means to be human, or what our rights are, nor does this short post deal with all of the intricacies of a public theology that includes a robust theology of the state, acknowledging traditions such as the Just War tradition. I don't think these conclusions necessarily assume a certain view of those issues, though I do think it informs the way we think about them. And it certainly should inform our view of what it means to torture another human being. Regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent, they should receive respect. That is for their honor, but also for our own honor, and for God's.

Just some thoughts to add to an important conversation.

November 02, 2007

Evangelicals and Torture

Back in March 2007, a group of evangelicals published An Evangelical Declaration against Torture. It is a broad statement advocating an evangelical-biblical logic for the sanctity of life and human rights. Recently, Keith Pavlischeck has published an article in Books & Culture criticizing the declaration as misleading and missing the moral point. I won't rehearse all of the details here, but I do think this is such an important moral issue that it is worth some reflection. I was just listening to a discussion on NPR last evening about conditions in Guantanamo Bay, and even though the discussion may have been slanted toward making things sound worse than they are (the interviewee was a defense lawyer for some detainees), I'm sure that it has a good kernel of truth. And that basic truth is that the people in Guantanamo, guilty or innocent, are not treated well. I have always wanted to think that the US doesn't torture people, but I'm afraid that is decidedly a false assumption, as a seeming endless parade of evidence is showing.

I acknowledge that the issues are indeed very complicated, and that simple answers are elusive, but I think it is still worth pondering. One question is about justification for the distinction between legal and illegal combatants, such an important one in the situation in Guantanamo, for instance. The basic logic discussed in Pavlischeck's article is that if the US or any nation were to extend rights equal to legal combatants to those who are illegal, they are in a sense sanctioning that illegal behavior, and thereby undermining basic human rights by discouraging the distinction between combatants and civilians, and thus making conflicts more difficult to fight and causing more civilian deaths.

I hadn't really thought of that logic, and must admit that there is a certain sense to it. But I don't think it is a very strong argument. First, I don't think human rights are earned, and even people who do deplorable things deserve basic rights of fair treatment. Now I do want more civilians to be spared harm, and want combatants to fight as legal combatants, but I hardly think this bit of logic has made any difference to our al Quaeda or Taliban adversaries. First, do they have any idea that that is our supposed logic. And, second, do they consider themselves illegal combatants. Who gets to decide? If they consider themselves essentially legal (as I'm sure they do), then our logic backfires a bit, since then we are seen as taking at least as low a road as they do. What good does that do?

I've struggled with questions of pacifism and just war, capital punishment, and the like for years, and think they are important issues and that both sides usually have very valid points. But I'm more and more coming to the conclusion that grace, while it often goes against worldly or pragmatic logic, sheds amazing and refreshing light on the situation. I think our country would be much better off if we treated all people, including those that don't deserve it, as human beings worthy of respect, we would do a lot to further peace and reconciliation in the world, not to mention cleansing our own tortured conscience. I encourage you to look into these issues for yourself. Read the article from Books & Culture, read the Evangelical Declaration against Torture, think on these things.