One of the issues raised by the lengthy discussion about the designation of Jesus as a high priest after the order of Melchizedek is that of Jesus’ “sinlessness”. Traditionally we have understood this in what I suppose are general existential or ontological terms: Jesus was sinless because he was by nature both God and man. But the New Testament, for the most part, frames the matter differently, situating the motif in a narrative and eschatological context that puts the emphasis not on his nature but on his obedience under particular conditions. This is not an isolated correction, of course. It is part of a wholesale shift in how we make sense of the New Testament and therefore of Christian origins—from a dogmatic-theological reading to a narrative-historical reading.
One of the arguments put forward by those who wish to find the divinity of Jesus under every stone is that as a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:17) Jesus must have been both God and man. This is a misunderstanding of the argument in Hebrews, and I want to set out briefly why I think this is the case. There is a lot more in the discussion that I would like to pick up on, particularly cherylu’s helpful contribution, but there’s an Eagles concert to go to tonight at the Dubai Rugby Sevens ground, and we’re off camping in the desert south of the Liwa Oasis tomorrow. From the ridiculous to the sublime.
A key part of the broad “thesis” that I am putting forward on this blog and in my books is the observation that the New Testament texts reflect a consistently apocalyptic outlook. What I mean by this, essentially, is that the whole story about Jesus and the emergence of the churches is directed towards certain decisive future events by which the status and condition of the people of God in relation to the nations would be dramatically transformed. This was expected to happen within a realistic and relevant historical horizon: it was to impact the world as the early church knew it. It was not the whole story: the New Testament narrates a critical episode in the continuing story of the family of Abraham, which has Genesis 1-11 as its preface and John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth as its epilogue. We cannot, therefore, simply apply the theology of the New Testament to the church today as though nothing has changed.
This morning’s Good Friday sermon focused on four aspects of the atoning function of the cross: propitiation, redemption, justification, and reconciliation. The sermon had a strong evangelistic slant, and it’s not at all surprising that Jesus’ death was presented as having this four-fold atoning significance for the individual sinner. The wrath of God against the individual sinner is propitiated; he or she is redeemed, justified, and reconciled, and then becomes part of the covenant community. I think this traditional approach, for all its evangelistic effectiveness, turns the New Testament argument inside out.
I imagine Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover article on Christianity in Crisis will attract a great deal of interest. He castigates the modern church in all its forms for its corruption, hypocrisy, loss of moral authority, materialism, obsession with sex, intellectual obscurantism, and collusion with political power. He thinks that Jesus would have been baffled by North American religion and by culturally dominant North American Evangelicalism in particular. In place of the “the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations”, he portrays a Jesus who looks very much like Francis of Assisi—the real Francis of Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, not the fashionable “erstwhile hippie, communing with flowers and animals”.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we do not need a theory of the atonement. Theories of the atonement are nothing but excess intellectual furniture. We can’t move in here at the moment because the place is heaped up with ponderous medieval dining tables, fussy baroque wardrobes that go nowhere, and hard, threadbare Victorian armchairs, all covered in a thick layer of dust. We don’t need it. It’s all just clutter. Centuries of obstructive theological clutter. What we need to do—sorry, what I think we need to do—is tell the story of how Jesus’ death around AD 30 fundamentally and lastingly impacted the people of God, and to tell the story as the New Testament tells it, as prophetically interpreted history.
As I would redefine the term from a narrative-historical perspective, an “evangelical” in the broadest sense is someone who finds “good news” in the long and complex story of the historic family of Abraham, descended through Jesus. Or better, the church is “evangelical” insofar as it finds good news in that story.
In my post on the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit I made the remark that Cornelius is described as a ‘pious man, who feared God, who prayed continually; a righteous and God-fearing man, who was “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”’ (Acts 10:2, 22). Mike has asked in what version Cornelius is described as being “righteous”. I thought at first that he was being facetious (I get a bit paranoid sometimes), but it looks like a reasonable question.
Daniel Kirk wrote a piece recently about Christians “being greater than angels”, looking at Paul’s enigmatic remarks in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3 about the saints judging not only the world but also angels. It’s a short piece, and the focus is mainly anthropological: an “idealized humanity” will judge the world; a “redeemed humanity occupies a higher place in the cosmic order than angels”. But what about the eschatology of this passage? What about the when?
In the garden of Gethsemane, shortly before his arrest, Jesus becomes “greatly distressed and troubled” and says to his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” He moves some distance from them, falls to the ground, and prays “that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him”. Mark records his words: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk. 14:32-36; cf. Matt. 26:36-39; Lk. 22:41-44).