Tag Archives: the Crucifixion

the forgiveness of sins….and life everlasting

On The Sign Of Jonah, Forgiveness, Repentance, and Reconciliation

The last few lines of the Apostles’ Creed reads:

“8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:

9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:

10. The forgiveness of sins:

1l. The resurrection of the body:

12. And the life everlasting. Amen.”

While I do plan on doing a series on me being historic creed-affirming and what that means as an outlier, very much Free Church Baptist, I want to focus on the last three lines today. I think it’s of most urgency to talk especially about “the forgiveness of sins” part in a violent, unforgiving world with a 24-hour news cycle. Unfortunately, many mainline and evangelical churches discuss “forgiveness” without talking about repentance. As for myself, I know I have personally been in error of talking and writing about repentance while neglicting forgiveness. Specifically in concrete terms, when pastors and Christian celebrities make mistakes or break the law, our very first reflex is to accept apologies in the name of forgiveness, and then once again put that person back up on a pedastal. “Forgiveness” has become redefined as letting the person who has sinned live as if nothing ever happened. Things go back to the way they are. Apologies make a mockery of repentance.

At the same time, the sinned against feel outraged. The sinned against, the victims of the powerful, rightly continue to call for true repentance, that metanoia where the sinner changes not only her/his mind, but also her/his habits. No, things cannot go back to the way they were before. But the Church insists Things Must Stay the Same. But the Spirit sent by the Father and the Son, calls out, saying to us, no sinner, everything must CHANGE.

On anger, very briefly. Anger is a legitimate emotion in Scripture. The problem occurs when we stay angry, when we allow our perpetrators to define us. In a way, by allowing the sun to set on our wrath, the Law and Sin (the Old Creation) continue to remain in power as a stronghold. In Christ, we are New Creations, being conformed to the Image of God. The Great Commandment and the New Creation reconstitute us into new selves, selves determined by the grace of God. Anger can inhibit us from taking action just as much as any emotion can. Frustration is not a guarantor of social change, no more than joy, no more than apatheia, or empathy.

What I love about Jesus is that he teaches us how God is in control of God’s emotions, and how we can be too. Christ Jesus was proceded by the prophetic tradition we witness in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. One such prophet was Jonah. In Chapter 4, Jonah reveals why he ran away from YHWH’s call on his life. “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, a God who RELENTS from sending calamity.” Did Jonah have a right to being angry? What was his beef with the city of Ninevah? I was always curious why until I read Miguel De La Torre’s Liberating Jonah: Forming An Ethic of Reconciliation. “The Assyrians were the conquerors, rather than the people in some distant place waiting to hear the good news of their salvation. There are clear parallels that link the United States with the empire of Assyria, and Jonah and Israel represent those who exist at the margins of empire and are subject to its mercy or domination” (27).

So we see that God had chose a member of one of Assyria’s victims to call them to repentance, and coincidentally teach them about God’s forgiveness. In the New Testament, like in Matthew 12:38-41, Jesus talks about the Sign Of Jonah. The former enemies of Israel, the Assyrian oppressors, are far better off than Jesus’ generation (under the Roman Empire). The people of Ninevah recognized the goodness and mercy of God, and that brought them to repentance.

What I want to point out is not an androcentric message how dark the hearts of Jesus’ opponents or the ancient Assyrians were. What I want to say is that many Christians pat themselves on the back for making calls to repentance by pointing out how totally depraved everyone is. What would stop a person just turn around, and not affirm a higher power at all, after hearing that message? So with the Apostles Creed , and the witness of Scripture, we can say, we believe in the forgiveness of sins AND the Resurrection of the Body, i.e., the goodness and mercy of God.

Granted, I have often dismissed the cliche “God is good all the time,” because of all the suffering around us. It’s really actually one of the most difficult divine character traits for me to affirm. But the story of Jonah reminds us that God is merciful, God can choose to RELENT, that God is OPEN to our cries. Our suffering does not determine who God is. God’s Goodness, grace, is what defines The triune God.

In the words of Karen Baker Fletcher, “The logic of the Crucified God in Jesus the Christ, who forgives those who kill and offers hope for redemption, points to a better path. It is in this second more difficult and challenging, path that one becomes more than forgiven but more fully in the image of God. The promise of God in Christ is the restoration of full humanity in God’s own likeness deliverance from ALL DISTORTIONS and corruptions of that likeness” (Dancing With God, p108).

The act of forgiveness is an act of hope. God sent the Son to call for our repentance/teach us about the One True, Merciful God in hope for everyone to know God (Acts 17:30). Forgiveness is NOT the act of accepting apologies so things can go unchanged, the status quo in tact. Forgiveness is opening ourselves up to the possibilities of our enemies’ repentance, so that we may be reconciled in restored fellowship. Thus, forgiveness, repentance, and the hope for reconciliation should never be severed. Just as justice and righteousness go together, so too repentance and forgiveness.

Now, I know haven’t gotten to a lot of concrete implications but let’s start with God’s forgiveness. On one hand, Scripture repeats God will forgive our sins and FORGET. God will relent from God’s memory our trespasses. On the other hand, Jesus the Son of God returns in Revelation with his raised heavenly body, filled with scars. The cheap adage “time will heal all things” is not true. That is fatalism and works righteousness, something opposed to grace. Only the Cross of Christ heals, and God doesn’t keep a grudge. So the implication for our own actions is that we as New Creations are called to forgive sins, but always remember the sinned against. As the apostle Paul says, “remember the poor.”

So we should keep in mind the most vulnerable when our church bodies are deciding how to handle issues of corruption, abuse, or integrity. Just as God has given us our free will (the space for genuine repentance and loving relationship with God), churches and communities too should set proper boundaries and safe spaces for the sinned against, for the sake on the whole body.

In this way, we can affirm the Creed, “We believe in

10. The forgiveness of sins:

1l. The resurrection of the body:

12. And the life everlasting. Amen.”

Open Theism, Moltmann, Patristic Thought, & Divine Apatheia

In a recent facebook group discussion, we have gone back and forth about the meaning of what does it mean for God to be impassible?  Does God really not suffer, and therefore is not able to relate to humanity? A current stream of polemics in BOTH conservative evangelical and mainline liberal Christian academia consists of making Platonism along with any other form of Greek philosophy to be enemy of the one, true pure biblical perspective. The use of this argument is valueable but it does have it limits. As Christians, we are to experience the world Pentecostally, in that God has reconciled all nations and tongues to Himself in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the Sending of the Holy Spirit to the Church to go through out the world. Each language, philosophy, academic discipline can be used for the glory of the Triune God. The confusion of Babel comes in when Christians, for example talk about capitalism as Christian freedom, or when the early Church Fathers appropriated the Gentile, philosophical writings of their contexts with words like “apatheia,” “immutability,” “impassibility,” and the like. How can the God who died on the cross be considered unchangeable and incapable of suffering in any way?

Pentecostal Hybridity [not syncretism, since cultures and languages are fluid, and they can change], leads to language barriers and conflicts, and yes, definitely extended debates. Christian engagement with the “world” [prevailing cultures] does require something more than nuance, it requires discernment. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are must examine the prevailing texts of the day, appropriate the good, and discard the bad by measuring them with the Cross. A while back, Open theologian John Sanders wrote a post on the Early Church Fathers on Hellenism and Impassibility. While in some of his published works, Sanders took a more critical stance on the Church Fathers’ and their appropriation of “impassibility,” Sanders is now arguing (rightfully) that the way the Fathers understood God’s impassibility was really quite different from Greek philosophy. Sanders notes,

“From the second through fourth centuries there was no standard definition of divine “impassibility.”[i] For Christian writers it did not mean that God was apathetic, distant, or lacked compassion. God did experience mercy and love. Christians disagreed with one another whether God experienced anger depending on whether or not they thought this emotion “fitting” for God. The word functioned in a couple of ways. First, it was a way of qualifying the distinction between creator and creatures. God is incorruptible while we are not. But we will be made impassible (incorruptible) in the eschaton. Also, we are prone to be overwhelmed by emotions, particularly negative ones, but God is not. Hence, it was used to safeguard divine transcendence (aseity) rather than deny psychological emotions to God. Second, it functioned to distance the Christian God from the gods of polytheism. They were passible in the sense that acted capriciously and lost control of themselves. In contrast, the Christian God faithfully loved, was patient, and acted consistently.[ii] Hence, it is clear that when the fathers said God was impassible they did not intend to rule out that he has emotions or that he is affected by and responds to us.”

This observation holds especially true, particularly when one looks at the corpus of one Clement of Alexandria. Clement worked really hard to distance the God of Christianity from the Roman imperial Egyptian divinities of his day. Clement understood the gods of that pantheon to be greedy, lustful, sexually immoral, and controlled by their desires; and of course, their worshippers followed in their footsteps. What Clement did was argue that God is apathetic to what these gods desired, that the God revealed in the Divine Logos-Person of Yeshua the Messiah was fully capable of controlling himself, and also served as the source of our holiness, our own participation in the divine apatheia.

Often dismissed often as a pantheist heretic and for his kenotic Christology, Juergen Moltmann in his The Crucified God: The Cross Of Christ as the Foundation And Criticism of Christian Theology, made similar arguments as John Sanders and Clement of Alexandria concerning divine apatheia. Our conversation starts on page 269,

“An examination of the discussion of apatheia in ancient Greece, Judaism, and Christianity shows that apatheia does not mean the petrification of men, nor does it denote those symptoms of illness which are today described as apathy, indifference, and alienation. Rather, it denotes the freedom of man and his superiority to the world in corresponding to the perfect, all-sufficient freedom of the Godhead. Apatheia is entering into the higher divine sphere of the Logos. […] Love arises from the spirit and from freedom, not from desire or anxiety. The apathetic God therefore, could be understood as the free God who freed others for Himself.”

For Moltmann, it is essential for Christian theology to have both apatheia and pathos (which we find in the Old Testament). Thus, Moltmann concludes about apatheia, “Christian theology can only adopt insight and the longing of Hellenistic apathetic theology as a presupposition for the knowledge of the freedom of God and the liberation of fettered man” (page 275) Contrary to the popular saying “freedom isn’t free,” freedom is free, and its source is found in the Open God of Liberation. Just as no one desire or emotion is able to claim the Triune God as its own, neither can any oppressive tradition or institution possess the freedom that the Christian has been given by the Creator.  In the words of Clement of Alexandria, “For God bestows life freely, but evil custom, after our departure from this world, brings on the sinner unavailing remorse with punishment.” (Sermon to the Greeks, Chapter 10).

The Crucifixion of God’s Son is the one true source of humanity’s liberty.  The God-Man’s death on the Cross must be seen as God opening up God’s covenant for all humanity. Undergirding this premise for Moltmann is his CORRECT observation that the downward pathos movement of YHWH can only be understood as part of the special revelation in the Hebrew Bible, and in God’s communion with Israel.

“Therefore, there is for it a direct correspondence between the pathos of God and the sympatheia of men. On the basis of the presupposition of election to the covenant and the people it is necessary only to develop a dipolar theology which speaks of God’s passion and the drive of the spirit in the suffering and hopes of man. This presupposition does not exist for the Christian, especially for the Gentile Christian. Where for Israel immediacy is grounded on the presupposition of the covenant, for Christians it is Christ himself who communicates the Fatherhood of God and the power of the Spirit. Therefore, Christian theology cannot develop any dipolar theology of the reciprocal relationship between the God who calls and the man who answers; it must develop a trinitarian theology, for only in and through Christ is that dialogical relationship with God opened up.”- Page 275, once more (Bold Emphasis My Own)

Moltmann’s move is a significant gesture, a critique of the Gentile imperial arrogance we know as natural revelation. Moltmann at once contextualizes himself in the story of the Crucified God as a German Gentile, and at the same time is able to articulate the narrative of God’s people (Israel) and God’s Messiah. Now, Moltmann goes on to argue that the beginning of Trinitarian history happens at Golgatha; I disagree. God’s own Trinitarian history begins with liberating Exodus event and the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word made fetal flesh. The history of full human participation in Trinitarian history begins with the Crucifixion, I would contend, since God sovereignly chose to embrace us ragged Gentiles into the salvific equation. The Openness of God for us begins with the sweet embrace of Jesus nailed to the tree.

The Good Shepherd: Clement and Christus Victor

I have mentioned briefly on here the work of Gustav Aulen, and while I concede he needed more biblical exegesis for his case for Christus Victor, and a tighter grip on Church history, overall, I think he was right. Right smack dab in the middle of Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, Aulen only briefly mentions the image of God as the Good Shepherd rescuing the sheep from the three big bad wolves named Sin, Death, and Satan. At the same time, Aulen dismisses Clement of Alexandria as a theologian who dwelled too much on philosophy and not enough on atonement. This is why Aulen stakes his claims with Athanasius of Alexandria.

This may have been an error on Aulen’s part because the prevailing metaphor for Clement when it comes to the LORD’s sacrifice for us is the biblical image of The Good Shepherd.  For example:

“But it has been God’s fixed and constant purpose to save the flock of men: for this end the good God sent the good Shepherd.  And the Word, having unfolded the truth to men the height of salvation, that either repenting they might be saved, or refusing to obey, they might be judged.  this is the proclamation of righteousness: to those that obey, glad tidings; to those that disobey, judgment.  The loud trumpet, when sounded, collects soldiers, and proclaims war.  And shall not Christ, breathing a strain of peace to the ends of the earth, gather together His own soldiers, the soldiers of peace? He has gathered the bloodless host of peace, and assigned to them the kingdom of heaven.  The trumpet of  Christ is His Gospel.”

– Clement of Alexandria, Sermon to the Greeks, Chapter 11

Or consider this other example:

” ‘All Wisdom is from the Lord, and with Him forevermore’;—with authority of utterance, for He is God and Creator: ‘For all things were made by Him, and without Him not anything made [John 1:3]–and with benevolence, for He alone Himself a sacrifice for us; ‘For the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep;'[John 10:11] and He has so given it.  Now, benevolence is nothing but wishing to  do good to one’s neighbor for his sake. “

-Clement of Alexandria, The Pedagogue (The Instructor/Educator), Book 1, Chapter 11

Now, there are well-meaning Christians who remain skeptical about Christus Victor because of the little work done on it, plus its rise in popularity.  If something seems like it’s new or something ancient that is recovered, I would say there should be criticism, especially with very few works that focus on Scripture and Christus Victor atonement. The thing about Penal substitution is not that it is violent in God’s wrath towards us, but that it makes our human depravity the center of the doctrine rather than God’s goodness.  PSA translates very well into US American Christianity and our self-centered individualism.  What I am seeing in Clement of Alexandria’s atonement theology is that the doctrine that is founded on God’s benevolence, and making our Good Lord Jesus Christ the Center.

“As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

– Ezekiel 34:12 (NRSV)