Saturday, July 24, 2010

Reflections on Faith (11)

Previously on Paul. I didn't finish the last section on directing faith toward Jesus but wanted to get on with finishing this chapter on "How Salvation Works." I'll fill in the gaps for publication.

Life Reflections
The standard Protestant application of Paul in Romans is such a well-worn path that it hardly seems necessary to mention it. The typical sermon goes something like the following. No one can earn God's favor. No matter how much good we do, it is not enough. Good deeds cannot make you right with God, cannot get you to heaven. We can only get right with God by faith, by believing in Jesus, by believing that Jesus rose from the dead, by confessing him as our Lord.

Most of this scenario fits with what Paul was actually saying. True, it has lost the context of Paul's original message, where the key point was whether non-Jews could also escape God's wrath and be a part of God's people. It has lost the original flavor of the debate over "works of Law," a debate that heavily centered on things like circumcision and purity rules, the things that most separated Jew and Gentile. Paul also never says that heaven is our eternal destination, and you can make a very strong argument from Paul's writings that he saw a transformed earth as our eternal home. Interestingly, Paul never mentions hell in any of his writings.

Many of us in the church feel quite comfortable with the basic line of thought here. Everyone of us as done wrong at some point, with the result that God's judgment stands over and against us. Jesus absorbed God's anger toward our sin. All we need to do is trust in what God has done for us through Jesus, and we will escape the coming judgment and be saved. God's provision of a way out for us is an indication of just how loving and "righteous" he is.

However, I suspect that this line of thinking no longer makes sense to many Westerners, including many Christians. Certainly any difficulties we might have in making sense of these ideas does not in any way disprove them. Every culture has its blind spots, and we cannot assume that our "common sense" is always going to be a true sense. Nevertheless, God revealed the biblical messages to their original audiences in categories they could understand as well. The result is that we have to consider the culture of the biblical authors not only when looking at their "ethics," what they said about how to live, but also when looking at the categories of their ideas.

For example, what exactly does the picture of an angry God mean to say? Anger is a human emotion that usually has an edge of being out of control and, as we now know, physiologically impairs our ability to think clearly. [1] We can wonder whether a God who is omniscient--and thus for whom there is no difference between "experiential" knowledge and cognitive knowledge--could literally experience anger, which implies changes and movement in thinking and reflection. [2] God knows everything in every detail in every moment. His thoughts cannot move or change differently from moment to moment.

The notion of God's anger must thus a picture that says much more about us than it does about him...

further reflections to come:
1. penal substitution
2. alienation as a picture we strongly identify with
3. God's amazing acts of reconciliation

[1] How God Changes Your Brain ***

[2] The idea that God might learn something on any level by becoming human or dying on the cross implies that he was not truly omniscient beforehand. A God who creates everything out of nothing knows everything, including what it feels like to sin.

1 comment:

Marc said...

Just reading the book you recommended called Recovering the Scandal of the Cross after finishing Problems of Atonement and trying to make sense of this penal substitutionary atonement nonsense. I love the quote, presumably from a bewildered but bright Sunday School kid: "So, Jesus died to save us from God?"

I think it just made sense in antiquity and even up until quite recently that you had to appease an angry God because God was a lord and all the lords you knew got angry and needed "paying off".

I think it's a positive move in postmodern western society to strip away the projection of human traits onto God (thank-you feminists and liberals) and recover the God who embodies love, One abounding in grace and patient who works restoratively not retributively. Are we only now, in the 20th and 21st century "getting Jesus" as the true image of God? My goodness what has theology been doing all this time...