Let My People Think

Crown of Thorns

I have written before the “penal” part of the PSA (penal substitutionary atonement) model. In summary, I believe the “penal” part to be a misnomer. Its forensic focus merely obfuscates the ontological realities of the world that needs a lot of TLC from the one universal body of believers. The only sensible thing that can be expressed in a penal language is that sins bear their own penalty. One special case that I should mention is theocratic Israel under Mosaic law. Since those guys were quite obtuse in getting the message from God, God have them a legal system which was meant to model some aspects of sin and sins’ consequences through their judicial system. But the express purpose of that legal system was meant to draw Israel’s attention to the reality of the world’s brokenness, as opposed to being the truth it and of itself. That’s why “the law came through Moses, but grace and *truth* came through Jesus Christ.”

The “substitutionary” part of PSA is also quite misleading. If the atonement is purely judicial, and Jesus was merely punished by God in our stead, that raises as many issues as it purports to solve. It’s a double travesty of justice to punish the innocent and let the guilty go free. Instead, the Gospel teaches something which may sound similar to substitution on the surface, but it’s very different in a number of significant ways. I am talking about vital identification.

In a nutshell, Jesus bore the sin, the sickness, the entropy, decay, and the death of the world in his own body on the cross. Remember – Jesus was the Logos of God, and by him everything was created and in him everything moved and had its being. So, he didn’t just bear those things for humanity alone – he did it for the whole world. After the crucifixion, he went to the grave (which was to be our post-Adamic destiny as well). Afterwards, he rose from the dead with none of those things (sin, sickness, death, etc) being part of him any longer. In doing so, Jesus disposed of sin, sickness, entropy, decay, and death. When that happened – legally minded Jews “deemed him stricken and afflicted by God” punitively, but that was an error of perception. Jesus wasn’t stricken by God. He was betrayed by religious Jews and stricken by the occupying Romans. And he submitted to that treatment in order that “by his wounds we [may be] healed”, as humanity.
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Crown of Thorns

Jesus came to redeem and restore this world, and elevate humankind back to their status of being carriers of the image and the glory of God. He refers to those who don’t know the good news of what he has done as “sheep without a shepherd”, rather than as criminals. Jesus didn’t say “the accused need a lawyer” (although that is also provided as part of the atonement, but that was not his primary consideration). But he did say “the sick needs the doctor”. The work of Jesus is really about restoring what’s broken, rather than assigning judicial guilt for the faults of humanity. The atonement view which advocates this outlook – Christus Victor – was the most widely accepted one in the first 1,000 years of Christianity. It is still the view of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity (which numbers over 200 million adherents) to this day.

On the other hand, the atonement view popular in the Christian West is Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). Because it’s construed from the standpoint of crime and punishment, it misses the Gospel narrative pertaining to the restoration of creation to their original purpose pretty much entirely. Instead, it reframes the Biblical meta-narrative to conform with its view in purely punitive terms, rather in terms of action and reaction, of cause and effect. In doing so, it filters out and discards the vast majority of the Biblical narrative which tells us that God’s justice is primarily restorative rather than punitive, and that God’s justice is solidly on the side of humankind.

Here’s a high-level “compare and contrast” exercise, to help bring these points home:
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Crown of Thorns

By late 4th century AD, the raw transformative power of the Gospel was already in deep decline. The way of Christ was being supplanted by the Constantinian institutional Christianity. Since the tangible power of God was not widely demonstrable, something else was bound the take its place. That “something else” was forensic, legally focused Christianity. In redefining the overarching meta-narrative of the New Covenant as being exclusively a legal matter, the practical power of the Gospel was theologically legitimized. Institutional Christianity became a purveyor of solutions which were purely speculative, experientially unverifiable, and requiring one to die before the veracity of their theories could be personally ascertained. In other world – that so-called gospel was not much use for the for the living. It was only useful for the dead.

Historically, here’s how things got to where they did. In 410 AD Rome was sacked by Visigoths. At that time, Rome was viewed as the mother city of Christianity, and it came as a huge shock to the Western world that their relatively newly adopted religion – Christianity – was powerless to stop that sacking by pagan barbarians. In response, in mid-420s AD Augustine penned his opus magnum “The City of God”. In that volume he made important doctrinal corrections, but committed probably just as many worldview errors as he sought to correct. In trying to salvage Christianity from its alleged failed responsibility to protect Rome, he simply relegated everything that can be expected of God to the realm he called “the city of God” which can be accessed only after death.
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Crown of Thorns

Last weekend, while in youth church, my pre-teen son stumped his instructors with a simple question about the crucifixion of Jesus: how does executing someone else for your sin justify you? His instructors tried to explain it by referring to animal sacrifices and their significance, to which he again replied: how does killing an animal remove the punishment due you? And also – as a young person, what did I ever do to deserve death in the first place? They said to him something about even a small sin being enough to deserve death. To which he objected that punishing a petty misstep and a major crime with the same extreme punishment of death seems to be the very opposite of justice. Eventually the instructors said that it’s something that he should ask his parents at home.

It’s quite remarkable that they way the atonement of Christ is commonly explained collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions, even under the most simple of questionings. Since many people in the Western Christian tradition believe that penal substitutionary atonement (or PSA for short) is the only way to understand what happened on the cross of Calvary, they have simply learned to suppress their own deep questions about it.

Often times, questioning the common *interpretation* of Christ’s atonement is frequently equated to questioning the *value* of the atonement itself. Such set of tactics which discourage people from exploring the deeper foundations of their faith are a hallmark of religious fundamentalism, with its dichotomous all-or-nothing thinking. That’s why I applaud my son’s instructors that they didn’t shut him down, leaving open the possibility for him to continue looking for answers outside of the paradigm which couldn’t give him the answers which he was looking for (did I mention that I quite like that church?).
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Loyalty pledgeOne of the foundational maxims of Judeo-Christian worldview is that “you shall have no other gods before me”. Anything or anyone which you consider as the source of your livelihood, economic and financial security, safety, security, etc. in a way which overshadows your faith in God and his ability to supply, support, and protect you is considered to be an idol. That’s a classic definition of idolatry. Your idols could be persons, organizational or national entities, or things like finances, possessions, firearms, etc.

Of course this doesn’t mean we can’t have relationships or possessions. What it does mean, though, is that we should frame our relationships and structure our economic lives so that those work in synergy with out faith in God, and with our personal principles proper for Christ-followers. Generally speaking, as long as we genuinely consider God and his kingdom to be the source of every blessing we have, and everything else merely a conduit, we are on the safe ground.

There’s a lot of talk about loyalty these days. I shall avoid political contexts, and instead I want to zoom in to this concept relative to Christianity.
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Governing Principle Marcus AureliusMontesquieu was a man who rewrote political philosophy of his day. His ideas form a foundation of our democratic republic here in the U.S., and form a backbone of the U.S. Constitution.

Here’s a great quote from one of his writings:

“It is not chance that rules the world. Ask the Romans, who had a continuous sequence of successes when they were guided by a certain plan, and an uninterrupted sequence of reverses when they followed another. There are general causes, moral and physical, which act in every monarchy, elevating it, maintaining it, or hurling it to the ground. All accidents are controlled by these causes. And if the chance of one battle—that is, a particular cause—has brought a state to ruin, some general cause made it necessary for that state to perish from a single battle. In a word, the main trend draws with it all particular accidents.”
– Montesquieu, “Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence”

Obvious political implications aside, it’s hard not to admire this man’s systemic thinking which was way ahead of his time. That’s the mind of an architect and an an engineer.

Great American mathematician Greg Nash called those types of things “the governing principles”. This is applicable to in any branch of human endeavor. Do yourself a favor and check him out for yourself in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”.
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The beginning chapters of the book of Revelation contain 7 letters to the 7 churches. The churches are represented by seven golden lampstands. More specifically, the letters are addressed to the “7 stars”, representing the “7 angels of the churches”. What do all those expressions mean?

First of all, the word “church” (Greek “ekklesia”) simply means “called out / convoked gathering or assembly”. As a matter of fact, this exact same word “ekklesia” is used several dozen times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint, or LXX) to translate the Hebrew words denoting “convoked assembly”. All of these words simply referred to the people of Israel. In the New Covenant, this same word is used to refer to the body of Christ. So we have one word, and two different meanings which depend on the context.

Another interesting word is “synagogue”. In Greek literally means “to lead / bring together” and has a very similar meaning to the word “ekklesia”. In LXX, sometimes the cognates of these two words are used nearly interchangeably. For instance:

Leviticus 8:1,3
The Lord said to Moses … gather (ekklesiazo) the entire assembly (synagoge) at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

So, the point of it is that the word “church” is not meant to be understood in a purely Christian sense. In a similar vein, the word “synagogue” is not meant to be understood only in a Jewish sense. In fact, the word “synagogue” is used several times in LXX to denote Gentile gatherings.

Therefore, I will use the word “assembly” instead of “church” in this write-up from hereon out, as that would avoid anachronistically reading our modern meanings into the text that doesn’t necessarily support it.
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