Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Eschatology at Covenant

This past weekend saw Dr. Dan Epp-Tiessen come to Covenant and present a Portable CMU series on Eschatology called "Rapture or New Creation: Biblical Visions of the End." Following closely the thought of scholars like N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope and Nelson Kraybill's Apocalypse and Allegiance, Dan gave a straightforward account of the biblical evidence for the view that the resurrected body will be physical and that the end of history will culminate in a renewed earth no longer separated from heaven but finally joined together as was always intended in creation. Seeking to overcome the dualistic perspectives which separate spiritual life from physical bodies or devalue the created order as something disposable or of no eternal value, Dan asserted that the"good future" which God intended for God's creation included reconciliation and restoration. "Rapture theology" implies escape from the earth and all its troubles for the faithful followers of Christ. God intends to save not only souls but the earth and all that God has made. That is why the resurrection means physical resurrection, embodied spirits, which are substantial and tangible. Bodies are not to be discarded because they are worthless but valued because they are part of God's good creation which will be transformed and renewed.

Among other things, what the doctrine of last things stated this way does is to give good and compelling reasons for tending to the created order and engaging in a respectful and careful use of the earth's resources. As stewards of the earth, we must distribute the wealth wisely, share the bounty with all of God's creatures and keep from despoiling the beauty and resources which are ours to enjoy. This view also includes a good and well-rounded kingdom ethic by which to live among our fellow human beings for it builds on Jesus' message that the kingdom of God has arrived. Christians are to proclaim the Good News that the Kingdom is near and as such anticipate the full disclosure of the Kingdom by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, freeing the captives and comforting the dying and lonely. Brian McLaren has a revealing phrase in his book A New Kind of Christianity which states that an appropriate eschatology would be "participatory", and that our ethic and present practice should be "anticipatory", anticipating the full flowering of the Kingdom at the end of time. In so doing we offer not only hope but a vision of God's good future.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Atonement Theology I

“...The problem of salvation...has the problem of atonement at its heart. How does the moral fact of our estrangement from the Holy One become the religious fact of our acceptance by him and our reconciliation to him? The alienation which distorts all the relationships of our existence, but from which God redeems us by participating therein to the uttermost - how are we to picture this? How does this redemptive participation 'work'?” (J.S. Whale, Victor and Victim, p.74)

Over the past few months I have had some conversations over this question with other pastors and looked at some of the requisite articles in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Apart from a minimally descriptive three-part taxonomy and a brief discussion on the connection between the atonement and the doctrine of salvation, the Confession does not really discuss the atonement at all. However, one aspect comes across clearly. The cross has no transactional dimension to it. Rather, Christ’s death is an exemplary act. “Christ’s suffering without taking revenge gives us an example; we can follow in his steps and live for righteousness.” (Article 8: Salvation: Commentary 3)  

Historically, Mennonites have not seriously engaged in the minutiae of academic theology. Concepts like "the alien work of Christ", "Christus Victor" or "penal substitution" did not become part of their theological vocabulary. Their interests were more pragmatic. One wonders whether perhaps the Anabaptists saw some of the academic heavy lifting having already been done by their erstwhile allies or predecessors. More likely, they saw the futility of the scholastic approaches to theology and ethics and considered them to be spiritual cul-de-sacs, good for nothing but arguments and moral paralysis. Robert Friedmann, in his Theology of Anabaptism, argued that the sixteenth century Anabaptists held to an existential Christianity which refused to split apart faith and life. A. James Reimer has summarized Friedmann’s perspective this way: "A theological system, 'a rational edifice of thought,' would contradict the very nature of such a lived Christianity." ("Anabaptist-Mennonite Systematic Theology" in Mennonites and Classical Theology, p. 186) The more immediate concern of the early Anabaptist/Mennonite leadership was to articulate the implications for living which the saving work of Jesus Christ accomplished, thereby maintaining the unity of faith and life, the subjective nature of the new birth and other aspects of Anabaptist theology.

Perhaps this approach was good for its time but the issues have evolved since the debates of the reformation and its early aftermath. It isn’t the atonement but the God behind the atonement who is under scrutiny. Questions of God's existence and God's nature are now at issue. The 'cultured despisers' of the Church and Christian religion generally have raised serious objections to the God espoused and proclaimed from the pulpits of traditional churches, subsequently rendering the missional value of some atonement models as suspect and counterproductive. The questions of the 21st century North American focus more on the kind of God who stands behind each model or metaphor of the atonement than the atonement itself and whether it is appropriate to acknowledge or worship such a God. Is God a loving God or the supreme tyrant? Would a just God require the death of an innocent victim? How does theology reconcile the holiness of God with the love of God? How do God's wrath and God's grace relate within the atoning act of Jesus Christ? The question is not a simple equation solved by putting some numbers into a formula and working out an answer. It goes far deeper than that. John Whale points out, "There can be no simple abrogation of the wrath of God by the mercy of God." (p.75) What then of the atonement?

A recent Anabaptist/Mennonite theologian has wrestled with questions of this kind and has tried to develop an Anabaptist/Mennonite approach to them. J. Denny Weaver’s The Non-Violent Atonement represents a significant attempt to develop an atonement theology from an Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective. Over the next number of months I hope to address the question of an appropriate atonement theology for the 21st century mission of the Church by looking at a number of recent works on the atonement and commenting on them as I read them. As I read these texts, the paramount issue to consider in judging the success or failure of these works will be their fidelity to the Christian Scriptures. But closely linked will be the answers to the questions: Does this atonement theology take evil seriously? And: Will the demand for justice be accomplished within the framework of this theology?