Christ died for whose sins in accordance with the scriptures?

Paul reminds the perhaps predominantly Gentile believers in Corinth of the gospel which he had originally preached to them. This gospel he had received from others: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). My question is this: Who does “our” refer to? For whose sins did Christ die?

Gordon Fee points to the relevance of Isaiah 53:4-6, 11-12 LXX: “This one bears our sins… weakened because of our sins… gave him over to our sins… shall bear their sins… because of their sins.” But he then speaks of this “atonement” in universal terms: Paul’s brief creed “presupposes alienation between God and humans because of human rebellion and sinfulness, for which the just penalty is death”.

This is a simple example of a basic error of comprehension that is commonly made when we allow theological interpretation priority over historical interpretation. We instinctively read it as a universal statement. Paul meant it, I think, in a more restricted historical sense.

The theological interpretation of scripture and the dashing of babies against rocks

Psalm 137 begins as a lament. The exiles in Babylon weep when they remember Jerusalem. They cannot sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land. The psalm ends, however, with a plea to YHWH that he will punish the Edomites for their complicity in the destruction of Jerusalem, and a chilling “beatitude”:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (137:8–9)

A historical-critical reading of the text has no qualms about taking the imprecation at face value. If the Jews in exile or after the return from exile hoped that their God would inflict the same horrors on the Babylonians that Israel had suffered at their hands—there is a certain principle of justice at work here—it’s not for the modern interpreter to mitigate or sidestep or gloss over the ethical difficulties that this presents to the modern reader. Historical-critical commentaries on the text are not formally required to take into account the difficulties that the “plain sense” might pose for Christian theologians, liturgists, pastors, Bible study leaders, etc.

Jesus’ protest in the temple

I started writing a little piece on narrative-historical commentaries and how to get by without them and I was going to use the account of Jesus’ action in the temple to illustrate it, but it got too long. So here’s the part on Mark 11:15-19 and parallels. The rest will follow.

The day after his carefully staged entry into the city, having spent the night in Bethany, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and entered the temple. According to Mark, he drove out those who sold and bought, probably in the court of the Gentiles, he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the pigeon-sellers, and prevented people from carrying anything through the precincts. A brief snippet of his teaching is recorded:

Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers. (Mk. 11:17)

Some questions about judgment and hell

I got an email from Don Lambirth, who has read material on this site about hell and also my book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective and has some questions. I have edited the questions slightly. Thanks, Don. Hopefully, my answers will be of interest to others.

1) On your view of Gehenna being AD70 and not final who else, whether in church history or in recent theological circles, holds this view? I see that NT Wright hinted at it. Brian McLaren seemed intrigued by it, and I found a guy named Walter Balfour… in the 1800s wrote a book about it. But I’m having trouble finding others. I think this view point is very plausible.

I have not been able to do an exhaustive historical study of the interpretation of “Gehenna”. I’ve just searched through the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and it appears that for the Fathers it was consistently a place of final punishment by fire. Jerome identifies it with the Greek Tartarus: “We should indeed mourn for the dead, but only for one whom Gehenna receives, whom Tartarus devours and for whose punishment the eternal fire burns” (Letter 39.3). As I mentioned in the post to which you allude, Wright considers the possibility that Gehenna has “the sense of a physical conflagration such as might accompany the destruction of Jerusalem by enemy forces”. I rather think that quite a few scholars will note the relevance of AD 70 for Jesus’ apocalyptic vision without making the connection with Gehenna.

Bart Ehrman on the Life of Brian, parody, and historical implausibility

At the “Jesus and Brian, Or: What have the Pythons done for us?” conference at King’s College London this last weekend, Bart Ehrman gave a lecture on “Parody as Historical Method”. At the time it struck me as borderline pugnacious—he was the only one of the presenters I heard who felt the need to aim The Life of Brian against conventional belief. Most took the view that the film was prescient—John Cleese kept calling it “miraculous”—in anticipating developments in historical Jesus research over the last 35 years.

I didn’t take detailed notes of Ehrman’s talk, so I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of my recollections—so much for eye-witness testimony. Also I’m more interested in the narrative Jesus than in the historical Jesus, so my comments are limited and probably rather simplistic.

Ehrman started by explaining that what had most disturbed him in the film as a young conservative evangelical, fresh from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, was not one of the obviously offensive or “blasphemous” scenes but the three deranged (or merely idiotic) seers in the marketplace preaching their messages of doom. With only a limited appreciation for the place of apocalyptic in Jesus’ teaching, Ehrman sensed nevertheless that the parody “undercut the core of Jesus’ message and mission”.

Paul’s apocalyptic gospel: vindication, non-universalism and imminence

I got so depressed watching England lose to Uruguay last night that I started reading the chapter on the “Apocalyptic Character of Paul’s Gospel” in J. Christiaan Beker’s celebrated book Paul’s Apocalyptic Gospel: The Coming Triumph of God. OK, it wasn’t technically the end of the world, but the book provided some welcome distraction.

In the chapter Beker discusses what he considers to be the four basic components of Paul’s apocalyptic thought. They are derived from Jewish apocalyptic, but Paul has radically modified them on the basis of his encounter with Christ and the Christian tradition. The motifs are vindication, universalism, dualism and imminence. My argument here will be that Beker gets vindication right, misconstrues Paul’s “universalism”, and so gets into difficulties over imminence. The dualism motif doesn’t greatly affect the picture.

Some standing here will not taste death...

Sitting in the London School of Theology library yesterday I was flicking through David Turner’s Baker Exegetical Commentary on Matthew and came across his discussion of this passage:

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Matt. 16:27–28)

Turner thinks that verse 27 “clearly refers to the coming of Jesus to the earth and the final judgment”, listing a number of passages in support: the parable of the harvest at the “close of the age” (Matt. 13:40-41), Jesus’ statement about the coming of the Son of Man in the Olivet discourse (24:30-31), the judgment of the nations, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne accompanied by his angels (25:31), and Jesus’ retort to the high priest that he will “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).

Turner then notes the problem of verse 28, which is ‘perplexing because it stresses the certainty of this future coming by stating that some of Jesus’s contemporaries will live to see “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”’.

Sinning against Christ and the argument for a divine christology

Chris Tilling has taken the trouble to reply at some length to my review of his contribution to How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. I want to address the issues he raises, not with a view to picking a fight with him—honestly, Chris—but because the points he makes are astute and I think worth exploring further. Plus he’s annoyingly entertaining.

The main issues have to do with  my so-called “lordship narrative”, how it relates to the Pauline data, and my dubious reasons for promoting it. I’ll get on to these weighty matters in another post, but to cover myself I will say this: I do not regard the “lordship narrative” (as I understand it) and a “divine christology” as mutually incompatible, but I do not think that the current proponents of an early high christology take adequate account of how the apocalyptic narrative works, not just in Paul but in the whole of the New Testament. 

Meanwhile, here I want to deal with a particular bone of contention—1 Corinthians 8:12:

Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

Origen, Jesus, and the kingdoms of the world (in narrative-historical perspective)

I’ve been reading the Fathers, trying to get a better idea of the catastrophe that befell the Jewish story about Jesus, which is part of the story of Israel, as the church put down cultural and intellectual roots in the Greek-Roman world. Somewhat by-the-by, I came across this passage from Origen in J. Stevenson’s A New Eusebius (220-21). Origen is explaining why he doesn’t think everything in scripture is to be taken literally. He considers first the creation story: “what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars?” Well, John D. Morris, PhD, from the Institute for Creation Research, for one—the old man must be rolling his eyes in his grave. But then Origen moves swiftly on to the Gospels:

Even the gospels are full of passages of this kind, as when the devil takes Jesus up a high mountain in order to show him from thence the kingdoms of the whole world and the glory of them. For what man who does not read such passages carefully would fail to condemn those who believe that with the eye of the flesh, which requires a great height to enable us to perceive what is below and at our feet, the kingdoms of the Persians, Scythians, Indians and Parthians were seen, and the manner in which their rulers are glorified by men? (Origen, De Principiis 4.16)

Missional pneumatology: is the Spirit active outside the church?

The piece I wrote last week on the difficulties that post-charismatics can have finding an honest place for the gifts of the Spirit in a justice-oriented “missional” framework provoked a rather aggrieved response from Michael Frost on Facebook. That appears to have been largely a matter of misunderstanding, for which I must take some responsibility. It was cleared up, more or less, in the comments. But as part of his response, in order to show that the missional movement has a strong pneumatology, Michael put up a series of excerpts from his chapter in a book called Following Fire, edited by Cheryl Catford. There is much in this material that seems uncontroversial—or perhaps better, controversial in a good way. This paragraph, for example, sums up rather well at least part of what I was trying to say in my misunderstood post:

But if the Holy Spirit is present in a local congregation then surely he would be saying more to us than that we are loved by the Father. Certainly the Spirit’s work is that of building up the assurance of the individual disciple, but we must adopt a stance that reckons the Spirit’s voice also calls us to champion justice, to demonstrate mercy and to announce the Lordship of Jesus and that these callings have practical, local outworkings.

But one section stands out—to my mind—as being seriously problematic if we are going to maintain continuity with a biblical understanding of the Spirit and mission. Under the heading “The Spirit Beyond the Church” Michael makes the following assertions….

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