"Bear With Me In A Little Foolishness"

(2 Corinthians 11:1) ~ Thoughts of a fool for Christ

Good Friday and Easter: A Tale of Two Amens

When you or I say ‘Amen’ to something (assuming we really mean what we say), we give it our affirmation. We say ‘Yes!’ to it, we acknowledge it to be truth and yield ourselves and our assent to it. An Amen is a giving of oneself over to the truthfulness of something else. It is, fundamentally, an act of faith. And it is something that we do all the time, whether we realise this or not: all of our lives are premised on certain objects of faith, whether that is God or money or science or a political cause or even simply the intelligibility and reality of the world we live in. Often this faith is not a matter of conscious reflection, but only implicit in what we do. Whenever we vote, we are saying ‘Amen’ to a system of government, assenting to the authority of that government to govern us. Whenever we use currency, we are saying ‘Amen’ to a whole monetary system that assumes everyone in a society assigns an identical value to a piece of paper. In a myriad of ways, every single day, we utter silent and subtle Amens to all sorts of things.

But most importantly, we do this to ultimate realities: we believe in God or in gods, or perhaps in an impersonal ultimate Unity that binds everything together, or perhaps in no higher reality whatsoever. Perhaps we say our ultimate ‘Amen’ to something in ourselves (our faculties of perception and reasoning, our intuition, our desires), or to something in human life more broadly (a certain philosophy, societal progress, the scientific method). Whatever it is, we all say it to something whether we want to or not—we place our faith, we yield our ‘Amen’.

The weekend of Good Friday and Easter tells ‘A Tale of Two Amens’. These Amens are not things so much said as they are things done: they are two acts in a drama, in which two actors—God the Father, and his Son Jesus Christ1—say something to one another by what they do. And we need to listen.

The First Amen: Good Friday

The first Amen is the Amen of Good Friday. It is the Amen of the Son of God to God the Father, the Amen he had been speaking to the Father from eternity, now finding its way into the depths of our estranged humanity on the cross.

Born of a woman, the Son of God’s entire human life was a faithful ‘Amen’ to his Father: healing the sick, announcing the kingdom, welcoming sinners and outcasts and warning of the coming judgment—in all these things Jesus was true to the God who chose and called him. His life was an Amen to the kingdom of God. And through his faithful, lived-out Amen, the kingdom was appearing in the world with signs and wonders that shocked and astonished. But on the cross, that kingdom-bringing Amen to God reached a terrifying and unexpected climax. Here the kingdom’s judgment, which Jesus warned would accompany the kingdom’s arrival, unthinkably fell where you’d least expect it: on the kingdom-bringer himself. The Son of God, the Messiah, the ‘Anointed’ king of Israel, became the bearer of his people’s judgment. He became the concentration and distillation of all their sin and accursedness.

Why? Because the ‘Amen’ Jesus spoke to God—the total consecration of his life to God’s kingship and will and grace and judgment and love—was not only for himself, but for us. It is not merely his Amen to God, but ours—his Amen spoken to God in our place, when all we could do is mutter lesser amens to idols. Vested in our corrupt humanity, Jesus carried the blameless Amen of his life before God down, into the worst of our human condition where by definition God’s kingdom was not, and precisely there he spoke the faithful ‘Amen’ of a Son to a Father. He established the kingdom of God in the citadel of sin, looking in horror on the awfulness of human wickedness and the accursedness of the evil that it had unleashed on the whole world; looking in sober resignation on the unwavering ‘NO’ of God’s judgment on all of it. And there, fully realising in himself the true human response to God’s judgment on sin—the response of ‘Amen’—he died in our place. And with that death something new came into being: now the death of a man before his God was not only the death of the rebel before his ruler. Now, in the still body of Christ crucified, death was forever transfigured into the faithful self-giving of obedient humanity to God even within the depths of its sin and estrangement. Now, even death itself means sonship: in Jesus Christ on the cross, God has adopted our dereliction. He has adopted our sinful death as his own, and transformed it into a final, reconciling human Amen to God for our sake.

But within that Amen to God’s judgment on sin that he spoke for us, Jesus also spoke a plea, no less the words of a faithful Son to a Father: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Particularly in the passion stories in Matthew and Mark, which give us these words from Jesus, we are left to wonder: is the triumphant Amen of Christ’s life, obedient to the God who called him and who delighted in him, to be snuffed out forever on this cross? Silent Heaven has no answer on Good Friday, and if in fact the only Amen in the tale belongs to Jesus, then we are left in a world that is ultimately without hope. There is just death.

The Second Amen: Easter Sunday

But here is the fulcrum on which Christianity itself turns: the tale is not of one but of two Amens. Not only the Amen of Jesus to God in our place, but the Amen of God to Jesus for our sake. A silent Heaven is not the end of the story—nor of mine, nor of yours. The Christian gospel is premised on the assumption that Jesus’ faithful Amen, and the cry of dereliction that accompanied it, was answered. To Jesus’ faithful dying Amen, God spoke an Amen of his own on Easter Sunday, when he raised Jesus from the dead in a restored humanity free from the corruption of sin and evil, discharged of any guilt and no longer consigned to the land of silence. This mighty act of raising Jesus was indeed an Amen of God’s own: to everything that Jesus had done, to everything that he was, God said an unreserved and unreluctant ‘Yes!’ By raising his Son from the dead, God told the world, ‘This is the humanity that will truly bear my image: a sin-stained son faithfully coming back to me from the far country. This is the humanity that is meant to rule the world: the humanity that says ‘Amen’ to me and not to lesser things, to Creator and not to created. This is the humanity that shares my fellowship and receives my inheritance: the humanity that embraces my judgment on sin in the hope of my restoration and forgiveness.’ In short: ‘This is my Son, my Beloved; in him I am well pleased.’

On Easter Sunday we witness the consummation of God’s kingdom in the new man risen from the dead—a consummation brought about through his faithful human Amen to God, answered by God’s faithful Amen to humanity. And this is the divine-human Amen that rules the world, as God always intended: in Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and raised from the dead, the human destiny of governing the creation God has given us finds its fulfilment in a man whose kingship is none other than the kingship of God, whose unique Father-Son relation to God oversees the world and gathers it into a divine-human family. Not only this, but Christ’s authority dawns in the world by the way of the cross—by self-sacrificial love that fathoms and fills the deepest depths of pain in the world and carries it back to God by grace. Risen from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand, he never ceases to be ‘the Lamb that was slain’, the one who was crucified. His cross-shaped Amen to God rules and restores the world, and at his return, God’s Amen that began with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead will be completed when he transforms the physical world you and I live in to be the eternal habitation of God and his people, free from every haunt of evil and sin.

In the meantime, God restores us by giving this human Amen of Jesus on the cross, freely, to us. The risen Lord of the world becomes our Brother, and God our Father, when we hear the good news (gospel) of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and say ‘Amen’ to it. When God’s Spirit breaks into our hearts and minds through the gospel message, we find that it compels our assent. It summons forth our ‘Amen’ to everything that God has done for us, and everything he promises to do when Jesus returns. The Amen of Christian faith is to look on what God has done in Christ and on the forgiveness he freely holds out to us, and to say, ‘All right; Amen,’ and with that Spirit-birthed Amen to be united with Christ and freely gifted the new humanity that he won for us in his death and resurrection. It is to hear God say, ‘This is what I think of you’ as he holds forth his risen Son before our eyes. And in this faith, this Amen, we have the hope that God’s Amen to Jesus will one day embrace our brittle bodies and the whole creation, when he returns. The Tale of Two Amens makes us part of its story, forever.

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Notes

  1. There is, of course, a third actor: the Holy Spirit by whom the Father and Son are bound together, and apart from whom the Atonement (of which we are speaking) could not have taken place. Nonetheless, I think we are right to speak of a drama with two actors that take centre stage and on whom the audience’s attention is focused.

Forthcoming Book by Constantine Campbell

Constantine Campbell is working on a book that will be coming out this year (July 28th in the US, August 27th in the UK) that discusses recent advances in our understanding of the Greek language and how these must impact preaching, teaching, and scholarship. Check out Zondervan’s video:

Crucifixion, by Martin Hengel (ch. 4, “Crucifixion as a ‘Barbaric’ Form of Execution of the Utmost Cruelty”)

Chapter four of Hengel’s book focuses mostly on the cruelty involved in crucifixion and its associations with the ‘barbaric’. (NB: this post probably will not be enjoyable reading.)

To the best of our knowledge, crucifixion as we normally think of it came from Persia, and was found among the Gauls, Germans, Scythians, Carthaginians, and others. In the Greco-Roman mind it was associated with barbarian peoples in general (see Crucifixion, 114-15), and no doubt this was part of the reason that the Romans deemed it a punishment unfit for a Roman citizen—who if convicted of a capital offence would be beheaded rather than crucified. Though the Romans and various Greek city-states adopted it, crucifixion stood remote from the very idea of civilisation and humanity (as did its victims). This owed largely to the nature of the practice itself.

Crucifixion took various forms among the barbarian peoples, and even in its implementation among Greeks and Romans, it did not exclusively resemble the portrait that Christian art has made so iconic over the millennia. The ‘common factor’ according to Hengel, though, is ‘that the victim—living or dead—was either nailed or bound to a stake’ (116). Beyond this, crucifixion could take many forms, and did. It was not merely a form of execution: it was a sadistic art into which its practitioners poured all their creativity. Understandably, there are not too many detailed descriptions of crucifixion of the gospel passion narratives, and even the gospels do not describe the act of crucifixion itself in any great detail. That said, the literature does validate Hengel’s claim that ‘the form of execution could vary considerably: crucifixion was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein’ (117). Hengel refers to several classical sources, notably Seneca: ‘I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch their arms on the gibbet’ (117). Josephus similarly describes the fate of those who tried to escape Jerusalem before its fall in 70 AD: ‘So the soldiers, out of the rage and hatred they bore the prisoners, nailed those they caught, in different postures, to the crosses, by way of jest’ (118); of the persecution of Christians in Rome under Nero, Tacitus says that in addition to being ‘covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs’, ‘they were fastened on crosses and, when daylight faded, were burned to serve as lamps by night’ (118). Seneca also writes (see 122-23):

Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.

In short, crucifixion relished pain and sought publicly to draw it out to the greatest imaginable heights. ‘It was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ in the original sense of the word’ (114).

Happy New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! I thought I’d take this chance to give an update on plans for the blog in the near future. Now that I’ve had a semester to get settled into my program and get a sense of what a normal daily schedule should look like for me, I’ve allotted a bit of time weekly for blogging, so hopefully posts will become a bit more frequent. In terms of what I’ll be doing, most immediately I’ll be continuing to look at Martin Hengel’s book, Crucifixion. After this, there are a few directions I could take. For one, I do want (as one commenter asked in an earlier post) to spend some time with Michael Gorman’s recent book, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant, mainly because I think Gorman puts forward just the methodology we need for talking about the atonement—and then mysteriously fails actually to employ it! At any rate, I’d still highly recommend his book (which isn’t too expensive, especially on kindle) to anyone interested in this topic. Other than that, I might try to bring together some of the research I’ve been doing over the past semester, which has consisted mainly in a review of literature about ‘substitution’ and ‘participation’ in Paul. If you find these topics as interesting as I do, feel free to ‘subscribe’ via email at the bottom of the page, and to share this blog with anyone else you know who might be interested.

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A collect for Christmas:

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

N.T. Wright, “Why and How Paul Invented ‘Christian Theology'”

 

Above is a lecture presented on November 11th at Duke Divinity School, in which Prof. N.T. Wright explains the role “theology” played in the mission and ministry of the apostle Paul, and in the communities he founded. This argument is also the substance of the thesis of his large recent book, Paul and the Faithfulness of GodIn short, Paul viewed (what we call) theology as the church’s central task of reflecting upon God in the light of Christ and the Spirit, so as to implement the project of new creation that had been inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Christ, and to live within that new reality as its faithful representatives.

Crucifixion, by Martin Hengel (ch. 3, “Docetism as a Way of Removing the ‘Folly’ of the Cross”)

Martin Hengel’s argument in chapter 3 of Crucifixion presents the obverse of his findings in chapter two: the hellenistic world of the ancient Mediterranean did influence Christianity’s understanding of the cross. But it did so in the opposite way some have claimed. In other words, the philosophical and religious ideas of Greco-Roman antiquity didn’t produce the Christian idea of the “crucified god”—they actually eroded it, softening and toning down the reality of the shame involved in the crucifixion by saying that the sufferings weren’t “real,” but only “appeared” (dokeô, hence “docetism”) to be so. Greek ideas about the nature of the divine being, both at the level of philosophical reflection and in mythology, actually demanded this: “the suffering of a god soon had to be shown to be mere simulation, rapidly followed by punishment for those humans who had been so wicked as to cause it” (107; Hengel mentions several stories about the god Dionysus to illustrate the point). It was axiomatic in the ancient world that God is, by his very nature, incapable of experiencing suffering. In the early centuries of the church, this axiom was applied to the incarnation itself to say that not only the sufferings of Jesus, but even his very humanity, were merely apparent, not real.

The way this played out both in paganism and in early Christian heretical circles was to speak of a deity’s experience of corporeal existence in terms of their “representations”: Hera and Helen of Troy, for example, are available to their human lovers (Ixion and Paris) only as phantoms “made out of heavenly ether;” Vesta snatches the real Caesar up so that his “phantom” is the one assassinated (cf. 108). Hengel notes that Celsus, the great opponent of early Christianity who wrote a treatise attempting to refute it, argues in this vein against the divinity of Jesus: “But if he was really so great he ought, in order to display his divinity, to have disappeared suddenly from the cross” (Cited by Origen in Contra Celsum 2.68; cf. 109).

This, in fact, was precisely how some later Christian sects, particularly the gnostics, presented Jesus. At this point, I was quite surprised that Hengel did not cite any actual examples, since this is well-attested in the surviving gnostic literature. I will provide three, the first of which focuses on the humanity of Christ in general, and the second and third of which focus on his “suffering.”

Acts of John 93:

[S]ometimes when I [John] meant to touch him [Christ] I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal…as if he did not exist at all.

Apocalypse of Peter 81:

I saw him apparently being seized by them. And I said, “What am I seeing, O Lord? Is it really you whom they take? And are you holding on to me? And are they hammering the feet and hands of another? Who is the one above the cross, who is glad and laughing?” The Savior said to me, “He whom you saw being glad and laughing above the cross is the Living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his fleshy part, which is the substitute. They put to shame that which remained in his likeness.”

Second Treatise of Seth 56:

It was another…who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height…over their error… And I was laughing at their ignorance.

Views such as these abounded in some circles of the early church, and later on would show their influence in Islamic accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, which present him as being saved from the shame of the cross and replaced by Judas (still appearing as though he were Jesus). This is what the influence of ancient pagan philosophy and mythology on the Christian faith really looks like. It is the softening of original Christianity’s shocking claim—that in Jesus Christ God suffered, and not only suffered in the physical experience of pain, but underwent the utmost shame and humiliation a human being could face, naked and bloody and nailed in public view to a wooden stake suffocating to death. The gravity of ancient culture moved Christians away from this conviction, not toward it.

Crucifixion, by Martin Hengel (ch. 2, “Prometheus and Dionysus: the ‘Crucified’ and the ‘Crucifying’ God”)

Was the idea of a “crucified god” utterly foreign to the pagan world until the preaching of the Christian gospel? In the second chapter of Crucifixion, Hengel considers a mythological story that comes close to such an idea: the story of Prometheus the Titan, who is punished by Zeus for giving humans fire. In the story (as it is told, at least, by Lucian) the punishment is described in a manner that appears deliberately to evoke crucifixion: Prometheus is nailed to two rocks in public display with his arms stretched out, the contrivance functioning as “a most serviceable cross” (cf. 103). Prometheus tells Zeus that it was a “petty” act to “deliver so old a god to crucifixion,” particularly in view of the favor he felt he’d done the gods by equipping humanity with fire that could be used to sacrifice to them (104).

This already sounds quite different from the Christian story, of course. But what is most distinctly different is how the story of Prometheus ends: Heracles (i.e. Hercules) will eventually come to his rescue—and Prometheus, being immortal, simply has to wait for that to happen, as unpleasant as his suffering until that time may be. As Hengel puts it, “a crucified god can at best be tormented for a while; he can never die” (104). (According to most of the myth’s traditions, his organs are pecked at by a carrion bird, and are restored overnight so as to repeat the process all over again day after day.) Moreover, while Prometheus is the protagonist of the story, none of this ennobles crucifixion in any way in Lucian’s mind—it simply demeans Zeus. Elsewhere in his writings Lucian refers to Christians as “poor devils…who deny the Greek gods and instead honour that crucified sophist and live according to his laws” (De morte Peregrini 13; cf. p. 104). All of this supports Hengel’s assessment of the Prometheus story as a candidate for comparison with the Christian message of a crucified god: it appears only “in the form of a malicious parody, intended to mock the arbitrariness and wickedness of the father of the gods on Olympus [Zeus], who had now become obsolete” (103).

In this chapter, Hengel also notes only one other story, in which Dionysus crucifies Lycurgus king of Thrace (after brutally torturing him “in every conceivable way,” cf. 105) for violating a peace treaty with the god, whom he should have rightly acknowledged as the conqueror of the world. Here, of course, the point of the story is of a different order entirely from what we find in the biblical writings: the conquering deity does the crucifying, not the reverse. Hengel’s conclusion to the chapter is fitting: “The extraordinary paucity of the theme of crucifixion in the mythical tradition, even in the Hellenistic and Roman period, shows the deep aversion from this cruellest of all penalties in the literary world” (106). Though the notion of a “dying god” was more commonplace in the ancient Mediterranean world—something Hengel does not explore in detail, since it lies outside the topic of crucifixion specifically—the Christian message cannot neatly be treated as a predictable or natural development of the mythologies and philosophies of its day. In that it presented the Son of God willingly undergoing the most shameful torture and punishment known to man, and doing so as the very means of his redemptive victory, Christianity stood quite apart from its contemporary counterparts.

Crucifixion, by Martin Hengel (ch. 1, “The ‘Folly’ of the Crucified Son of God”)

While my research for my doctoral topic focuses primarily on the theological importance seen in the cross of Christ, the historical and social significance of the cross in its ancient context form an important background against which Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus makes the sense it does. Though more recent work has been done, Martin Hengel’s book, Crucifixion, remains one of the most competent and thorough discussions of the penalty’s meaning in the ancient world. The book organizes its topics into twelve brief (but very dense) chapters, each of which focuses on a particular aspect and the last of which draws together all the findings. I won’t be summarizing these chapters in their entirety, which would exhaust both me and you, but will present the basic idea of each chapter with some of the more interesting historical evidence he puts forward.

The first chapter, as its title indicates, tries to get at something of the uniqueness of Christianity in its ancient context, a uniqueness that resides not simply in the apparent absurdity of one of its claims—that the Son of God was executed on a Roman instrument of torture—but also in the absolute and utter centrality this claim had for the early church. In other words, what the ancient world saw as most shameful and most embarrassing about the Christian message was the very thing that the early Christians made the biggest deal about. As Hengel puts it, “The heart of the Christians message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’…ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people.” (97). The cross, agreed Justin Martyr, the second century Christian apologist, was “madness” (mania) to non-believers, and various pagan sources from this early period (Pliny, Tacitus, Minucius Felix) regarded the Christians’ beliefs about it as “sick delusions” (cf. 93-95). One statement in a dialogue by Minucius Felix (cf. 95) is worth quoting further:

To say that their ceremonies centre on a man put to death for his crime and on the fatal wood of the cross is to assign to these abandoned wretches sanctuaries which are appropriate to them and the kind of worship they deserve.

In other words, the mere fact that Christians worship a crucified man reveals how disgusting they and their religion really are. It can be taken for granted—it need not even be argued—that anyone who holds such beliefs is a sick, perverse, deluded fool. “Cross” was a word that could never be accorded any kind of religious significance, nor be an object of reverence. It was the kind of word you would not mention in polite company—”a vulgar taunt among the lower classes” (101), something you would invite someone to undergo in the same way that we English-speakers say “Go to hell!” These and other such statements in ancient writings reflect “the constantly varying forms of abhorrence at the new religious teaching” (97), and reveal quite a lot to us, not just by what they say but by what they assume. The horror and godlessness of crucifixion was so obvious and so presupposed that the thought of its being the central means of divine revelation and redemptive action in the world was, to most people, not worth considering.

In the next post, we’ll look at some potential parallels with crucifixion in ancient mythology, noting their profound differences as well as their similarities.

Update

My bar on the top tells me that this site still gets a few hits most days, which is pretty remarkable in view of my long hiatus from blogging! In short, things got crazy the last year of seminary, crazier still over the summer in the midst of packing up and moving, and I didn’t have a schedule that was particularly hospitable to blogging.

That has changed, however, as my wife and I find ourselves in a new and very different situation. Earlier this year I accepted an offer of admission to the PhD program in Divinity (New Testament focus) at the University of St. Andrews, where I am now studying under the supervision of Prof. N.T. Wright, whose work I’ve been reading for many years. My three year program at St. Andrews will consist in research for a thesis, which at the moment is tentatively called “Substitution, Participation, and Paul’s Representative Christology.” The purpose of my research, basically, is to ask how we can speak of the death (and resurrection) of Jesus as something that both includes and excludes us—as an event in which we die and rise to a new existence “in Christ,” and in which something is done in our stead that we could not do. The place of substitution (much less “penal” substitution) in Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus has been quite controversial, particularly in recent years. I hope to contribute to the conversation by analyzing the ways in which words like “substitution,” “participation,” “representation,” and others are used in theological discourse, identifying their distinctive insights, and trying to map those concepts onto the theology of the apostle Paul as represented in his letters.

Since it’s a research program, a great deal of my time—much of almost every day—is now spent reading and writing. With this change comes the possibility of a renewed season of blogging, but this time blogging with a more focused intent: the discussion of ideas and sources that are relevant to my study and to the argument of my thesis (though the body of the dissertation obviously won’t be appearing here!). It’s not as though the world desperately needs another “academic blog,” but the medium of blogging does serve as an excellent way of developing good writing habits and refining one’s style in order to present complex topics to a general audience. If you’re interested in following, subscribe to the blog at the bottom of the page!

Sermon on Exodus 34:1-10

A couple of weeks ago I preached a sermon on Exodus 34:1-10, where YHWH reveals his glory to Moses. Check it out!

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