The continuing war between Emergents and Reformed over the cross

The war in America between Emergents and Reformed is a depressing business. A recent piece by Greg Gilbert on the 9Marks blog (Not Just Important, Not Even Just VERY Important. "Of FIRST Importance.") expresses satisfaction that defensive measures taken against the insurgents have 'effectively cut the legs out from under "emergent" theology, considered as a system'. But the basis for this confidence seems rather flimsy. Carson's Becoming Conversant, which I have read, and DeYoung and Kluck's Why We're Not Emergent, which I have read about, might knock down a straw man and frighten a number of people back into the arms of a modern orthodoxy, but I doubt that they will prove to be the 'one-two knock-out punches' that bring conclusive victory to the traditionalists. The effect is entrenchment, not resolution or even constructive dialogue.

Gilbert expresses concern that an emergent understanding of the gospel that 'makes its center something other than the substitutionary, wrath-enduring death of Jesus in the place of sinners for their sin' has embedded itself in evangelicalism, like a piece of shrapnel. This happens when the cross is sidelined in favour of 'Jesus' lordship, or God's kingdom, or God's purpose to remake the heavens and earth, or His call for us to join him in his work of cultural transformation'. It also happens when a 'substitutionary, wrath-bearing' understanding of the cross is rejected in favour of a Christus Victor soteriology, according to which Jesus' death is 'the result of human evil or greed or power-lust or culture-making or any number of other things coming to their lowest, worst, most concentrated point and killing Jesus, who then conquers that worst-of-all-evils through his resurrection'. Taking his cue from Don Carson, Gilbert argues that this understanding of the cross, which no doubt appeals strongly to those of an emergent disposition, has been purged of all sense of sin as an offence that merits punishment. He concludes:

In other words, such a presentation of the gospel essentially leaves out of the meaning of the cross exactly what the Bible makes central to it: A) that Jesus was dying in the place of his people, and B) that on the cross he endured punishment for their sin (not just the results of it—the punishment for it), meted out by God the Father in his righteous wrath.

Two things strike me about this argument. The first is that it can hardly be said that in the debate over the meaning of core Christian terminology ('gospel', 'salvation', 'justification') the mainstream evangelical-Reformed view has successfully fought off contenders and reclaimed the theological high-ground. The book-level conversation between Piper and Wright (see, for example, John Piper and the imputation of a real moral righteousness), whatever one's views on the matter, at least demonstrates that there are substantial points of disagreement and no prospect of easy resolution. I accept that the sort of 'emergent' theology that Gilbert has in mind overlaps only to a limited extent with Wright's programme, and may well be flawed in other respects; but my point is that there is an increasingly robust alternative to the Reformed paradigm that cannot be dismissed by pelting Brian McLaren with copies of Becoming Conversant.

The second observation is that Gilbert appears to have put forward here – wittingly or otherwise, and if wittingly, he is to be commended – a remarkably New Perspective account of the significance of Jesus' death. Jesus died for the sin, not of the whole world, but of his people – he died (as Gilbert says) 'in the place of his people'. And because that people was subject to a covenant that threatened punishment for persistent disobedience, it becomes quite proper to say that he suffered the punishment of Israel for the sake of a remnant that would survive the wrath of God – though it's a much less prominent theme biblically than the Reformed folk think. Jesus suffered on a Roman cross because of the wrath of God against Israel, in anticipation of the judgment of the war against Rome.

We then need to ask, however, what the consequences were of that death-because-of-Israel's-sin? What was the historical outcome of the fact that the descendants of Abraham were snatched from the jaws of destruction to participate in a resurrection to the life of God's new creation?

In the first place, since Jesus' death for Israel was a demonstration of the righteousness of God 'apart from the Law' (Rom. 3:21-26), it was found that there was no longer any impediment to the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of Abraham. Jews and Gentiles were reconciled to God and to one another 'in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility' (Eph. 2:16).

Secondly, the fact that Jesus' death could be interpreted as a victory over the lethal opposition both of the leadership in Jerusalem and of Rome – and indeed of whatever dark powers may have been imagined to lurk behind those political structures – was critical for the hope and survival of the early church. It was central to Paul's understanding of the resurrection that it foreshadowed the eventual judgment of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē (cf. Acts 17:31), the whole system of pagan belief that for so long had suppressed knowledge of the creator and oppressed, sometimes violently, the people who worshipped him. This was the inevitable outworking of the fact that Jesus had been appointed 'son of God in power', given the name which is above every name – not least above the name of Caesar.

But the realization dawned, thirdly, that this resurrection stood for more than the eventual victory of the people of God over the monstrous beast of pagan imperialism. It was a work of new creation; it anticipated a final transformation of the heavens and the earth, a new ontology. The one who was firstborn from the dead, the first of those who would be raised as part of the victory over oppression (cf. Rom. 8:29; Rev. 20:4), was also the 'firstborn of all creation' (Col. 1:15-20). And inasmuch as the community of Jesus' followers participated in this life, it also became a sign of new creation – a counter-sign to the bondage of the cosmos to wickedness, suffering, decay and death. And there is much to be said from a missional perspective about that.

What we have, then, it seems to me, is a rough but coherent narrative that connects the various elements that have been thought to belong to an explanation of Jesus' death. Gilbert is anxious to stress that a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not simply 'one more image of the cross among many'; it is 'the underlying reality upon which all the other images depend and are built'. And in a sense he's right. But this foundationalist approach is still a very poor representation of the dynamic that inheres in the narrative shape of biblical thought. Biblical theology should not be reduced to a set of tokens that can be selected and shuffled around according to taste, in the way that we might rearrange the pictures that we hang on the walls of our house. But any attempt to impose systematic structures – by making the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement foundational, for example – is bound to distort things. It misrepresents the nature of our relationship to the events; it obscures the extent to which theology is the self-understanding of a community as it makes sense of its historical condition; it unnecessarily downgrades the other parts of the story; and in the present instance it perpetuates the extremely damaging notion that theology is a mode of internecine conflict.

The narrative makes no sense without the episode of Jesus' death interpreted as a death for the sins of his people, in the place of his people, as an implication of the wrath of God. Gilbert is right there, and his formulation perhaps more subtle and bolder than he realizes. But that death was also for the sake of the future of the people, worked out under the real conditions of history. It is this narrative dynamic that needs to be safeguarded: it sets the trajectory for the missional existence of the people of God.

I think that this will be very difficult to do within the systematizing Reformed or modern evangelical paradigm. I'm not sure that 'emergent theology', which is largely a North American phenomenon, has as yet come up with a viable alternative. But there is a much broader emerging conversation taking place, of which the New Perspective is only one element, that I believe in the long run will generate a way of thinking that will do a much better job of re-integrating and reinvigorating the poor dismembered body of biblical theology.