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.


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!

The Bible & Preaching (pt. 1)

This semester in seminary I am taking a course, “Preaching to Modern Listeners,” the second of two courses on homiletics that are required for the M.Div. Whereas the first course focused mainly on basic methodology—taught with Haddon Robinson’s now famous book, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages—this course devotes most of its attention to the latter part of Robinson’s process: application and communication of biblical concepts to modern listeners. The governing metaphor for the class is drawn from John Stott’s book on preaching, also very well known, called Between Two Worlds. As preachers (so goes the metaphor), we stand astride a great chasm separating the world of the bible from today’s world, and are faced with the task of conveying the message of the bible to the ears of modern listeners.

Gordon-Conwell is widely recognized for its outstanding homiletics instruction. Though Haddon Robinson himself just recently retired, the other faculty (Jeff Arthurs and Scott Gibson in particular) have gained a reputation for offering some of the best training in expository preaching available at evangelical seminaries. I have benefited immensely from these classes, and will certainly grant that Robinson’s method provides brilliant tools for preparing and delivering sermons.

At the same time as these tools have proven themselves helpful in preparing sermons (or for that matter, writing) effectively, I have also found myself repeatedly perplexed by certain aspects of the homiletics instruction I’ve received—hence this post and the ones that will follow. What I mean to say is, though I quite like the homiletical methodology on offer here, I find the theology that is supposed to support it wanting—threadbare, to be honest. Granted, I am in full agreement with the philosophy, so admirably evident in Robinson’s writing, that the preacher submits his or her thoughts to the text of scripture. What is to be preached is ultimately, one way or another, what is written. But a problem I consistently perceive in my classes is that a basic, all-important issue is never thoroughly addressed: what purpose does preaching have, and how does it relate to the purpose of scripture itself for the life of the church? A host of unexamined assumptions about both these questions seems to underlie much of our instruction, and I have felt repeatedly the need to reflect on them in greater depth.

This will be an ongoing focus for the fall; I consider the matter worthwhile as a topic for reflection, seeing as there is more at stake in the matter than just a grade on a transcript. I love the scripture that we recite at the beginning of every class:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

2 Timothy 4:1-2

Preaching, like the kingdom of God, is not a matter of talk but of power, and a grave responsibility. It behooves us, then, to consider carefully how we ought to understand the task, its relation to the scriptures we rely upon to preach, and its purpose in the life of our churches. If we grasp this, our methodology will prove even more useful.

“What Makes a Full Atonement Full?”

Over at the gospel coalition blog, Mike Wittmer wrote an excellent post on various atonement theories and their need for one another conceptually (rather than having them work as standalone theories). He helpfully identifies the three main theories of atonement as providing interrelated answers to various questions the atonement poses. Christus Victor gives us the “why” of atonement; penal substitution the “how,” and moral influence the “for what.” I encourage you to go check out the post yourself. Below I have copied in my own reply to his post.

*     *     *

First off, I greatly appreciate this post and what it does with atonement theory in general. There is a huge need today in theology on this topic to incorporate and adequately relate the different aspects of atonement into a holistic and multi-faceted picture that benefits from all its different parts. I’ve personally been dissatisfied with treatments (e.g. Scot McKnight’s book, good though it is) that attempt to treat each theory as a coherent whole in and of itself without any significant reference to the others, so that how we account for the atonement becomes simply a pragmatic matter of which one will “do the job.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that “theories” is a misnomer—they simply aren’t adequate on their own as entire explanations. We can call them theories if we wish, but what we are actually dealing with are different features of one whole “thing” that is going on at the cross. Wittmer’s proposal in this regard is excellent: (1) Christus Victor gives us the “why” of atonement, (2) Penal Substitution gives us the “how,” and (3) Moral Influence gives us the “for what.”

There are a few additions I would want to make by way of critique. First, I think it should be pointed out that the great insight of Gustaf Aulen’s book, “Christus Victor,” was not mainly that Jesus needed to defeat Satan. (That is where it might be best to distinguish a fourth “Ransom” theory of atonement.) Rather, Aulen’s biggest point is that *sin itself* is the ultimate objective problem that had to be dealt with in the atonement, through Jesus’ victory. Aulen’s critique of Anselm and his theological heirs is that, despite claiming the title of “objective” for their atonement theories, they have in fact evacuated the model of its truly objective content. The real problem—sin—isn’t given its proper objectivity, whereas in CV its status as a power ensures that sin is actually a “thing” that can be dealt with in Jesus’ death. Instead, in Anselm and his successors, the locus of the problem shifts from sin itself to God’s wrath. And that is precisely the root of all the caricatures of Penal Substitution: it seems to make God the “problem,” and not sin. (This objection can be answered in a sense, of course, but I think the real problem lies deeper, in our failure to accord sufficient objectivity to sin. Aulen’s book has the virtue of doing that.)

When we properly recognize sin to be the real problem, God’s wrath makes perfect sense. Sin is not merely a “record” of wrongdoing that we have amassed in the recollection of God, “about which” God is angry. Sin is a whole state of affairs in the created order that *embodies* and *perpetuates* our guilt: it is the complex entirety of our “missed-the-mark” fleshly existence that has stemmed from our initial breach in our relationship to God. This existence then not only embodies the broken relationship and all its effects, but also the wrath of God: we are consigned to this condition of creaturely futility in death, because we have violated our unique status as God’s filial image-bearers carrying his dominion into all creation, preferring to deify ourselves instead. God’s wrath, in this picture, exists precisely toward the end of bringing this perverted state of affairs we have brought about to an end—in death.

When we get that, the meaning of Jesus’ death becomes clearer than ever, in precisely the holistic way that Wittmer wants to advocate. Jesus bears our guilt on the cross and disposes of it as our substitute precisely by bearing our created existence as his own, with all of the perversion that resides in it because of our broken relation to God. He receives our death penalty because he shares fully in our condition in the flesh: a humanity distorted and subject to sin, embodying our guilt, and facing the creator’s judgment. But he shares this condition sinlessly—in a perfect and right relation to God in the midst of our broken condition, faithfully loving and obeying God in the power of the Holy Spirit that conceived and anointed him. This fidelity is precisely the instrument of his victory as our substitute (“simul victor et vicarius,” we might say). He carries our guilty flesh to the cross and offers it to God’s judgment, to be abolished and made new in death and resurrection. What results is a new humanity—the risen humanity of our savior, free from the power of sin in the flesh, restored to perfect life and fellowship with God, and recovered for its task of bearing the creator’s dominion in his creation. All of this is accomplished in Jesus, and then through the gospel Jesus himself is given to us, to be the new seat of our identity—our life, our new man, our death and resurrection that will become manifest in our own mortal members. That’s his victory; that’s his substitution; that’s his influence. That’s atonement.

I suppose I get carried away; the point is, Jesus doesn’t just “happen” to accomplish “each” of these things described in these theories in the course of his atoning work. Rather, the three models are describing parts of the same thing (which I take to be among Wittmer’s great insights). Our human condition, marred as it is by sin, is simultaneously an embodiment of the powers’ sway over creation, and an embodiment of the creator’s wrath against sin. Therefore in the judicial termination of that sinful human condition on the cross, and its creation anew in the resurrection, God is judging and condemning sin in the flesh *precisely* in Jesus’ act of overcoming the powers through his own sinlessness and obedience. (Incidentally, this means that a strong dichotomy, as in John Goldingay’s essay that Wittmer quotes, between “vicariously punished” and “vicariously cleansed” is inappropriate.) Meanwhile, the complete work in its entirety demonstrates the greatness of God’s love for us—a love that takes as its own the burden of our humanity and disposes of its brokenness in God’s very self, for the sake of all. The triune God, adopting our humanity in his Son, cleansing it through the judgment of the cross and resurrection, and giving his Son to us to be our new humanity, righteousness, blessedness, and life—this is the love of God made manifest. How great is our God!

Lastly, the degree to which this constitutes a “moral influence” over us lies not just in our feeling inspired by it and determining to do likewise (e.g. love our enemies, forgive them even the point of death). Rather, the “moral influence” is also rooted in something objective: our incorporation into Christ by the Spirit. We don’t merely “imitate” him: his love, his grace, his dying and living becomes manifest in our own lives through our union with him and our possession, by faith, of his vicarious humanity. The cross doesn’t just “influence” us to act a certain way—it transforms our whole existence by bringing us to new birth, disassociating us from the sinful flesh that has been crucified in Christ, and empowering us to live out of our identity in Christ as God’s adopted sons and daughters, so that his image is displayed in us and our human vocation is realized.

So much more could be said, but anyway—thanks for posting this!

Previews of “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”

Fortress press has released .pdf previews of Wright’s forthcoming magnum opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. The Previews include the table of contents (overview of the whole and a detailed t.o.c. of the first part), the preface, and the opening—and 74-page!—chapter of the book. Have a look at them here:

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Return of the Runaway?

Reading the Psalms in One Week

In the previous post I mentioned N.T. Wright’s new book on the Psalms, and also gave a link to a bible reading plan that would get you through the Psalms once a month, or once a week. For those interested in the weekly reading plan, I have come up with an alternative ordering, which puts the Psalms in their ordinary sequence. (The other plan, based on Eastern Orthodox tradition, puts them in a different order and also omits one day.) If you want to read the Psalms once a week, you could try it as follows, in two sittings each day, morning and evening:

  • SUNDAY: (m) 1-17 / (e) 18-26
  • MONDAY: (m) 27-37 / (e) 38-48
  • TUESDAY: (m) 49-61 / (e) 62-71
  • WEDNESDAY: (m) 72-78 / (e) 79-89
  • THURSDAY: (m) 90-99 / (e) 100-106
  • FRIDAY: (m) 107-118 / (e) 119
  • SATURDAY: (m) 120-135 / (e) 136-150

Seriously, give it a try—if not as a continual habit, perhaps when you’re on a winter holiday or summer vacation!

“The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential”

“The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential”

A new book on the psalms (popular level) was published today by N.T. Wright (see link). I hope this book will arouse some interest in one of the most neglected parts of scripture today. The Psalms were practically the guidebook for all Christian worship throughout the whole history of the church, and their virtual absence from contemporary evangelical worship is astonishing (a few noteworthy exceptions granted). From the book’s back cover:

Reading, studying, and praying the Psalms is God’s means for teaching us what it means to be human: how to express our emotions and yearnings, how to reconcile our anger and our compassion, how to see our story in light of God’s sweeping narrative of salvation. Wright provides the tools for understanding and incorporating these crucial verses into our own lives. His conclusion is simple: all Christians need to read, pray, sing, and live the Psalms.

For some years now, I have been in the habit of reading through the Psalms every month, and I cannot commend the practice enthusiastically enough. The morning and evening rhythm of readings from the Psalms anchors one’s prayer life in scripture in a way that nothing else can. If you’re at all interested in giving this a try, check out this schedule for reading the Psalms monthly (or even weekly), based on the divisions found in the Book of Common Prayer. Another thing worth adding to it, if you wish, is daily reading a chapter from Proverbs, which gets you through the book once a month as well.

Thanksgiving and the Christian Life

So, just as you received the Messiah Jesus as the Lord, let your conduct in him be firmly rooted and built up in him and strengthened in the faith, just as you were instructed, overflowing with thanksgiving. ~Colossians 2:6-7

Lately on the side, as I’ve worked on some online classes, I’ve been slowly reading through David Pao’s book, Thanksgiving: An investigation of a Pauline theme. Pao’s study is both helpful and accessible; what I’ve appreciated most so far is Pao’s needed clarification of the purpose of thanksgiving in Christian devotion: “God-centeredness.” Whereas “thanks” and “thankfulness” in the contemporary consciousness is mainly about fostering and expressing my gratitude in avoidance of “taking things for granted”—in other words, a form of self-expression—thanksgiving in the ancient Judeo-Christian understanding is a covenantal practice consisting in God-focused acts of remembrance. What matters more than simply “feeling grateful” to God all the time (though gratitude might accompany the act as well) is remembering the things that God himself has done—supremely, in Jesus Christ his Son, for the world and for us personally.

For the people of Israel, knowledge of God was organized around the key saving events of their history. Through the covenantal remembrance enshrined in the Passover year by year, they re-enacted YHWH’s rescue of his people out of slavery in Egypt, and by doing so they reinforced their understanding of God and of themselves in a way that made them actual participants in his mighty acts. In Pao’s words, “While the mighty acts of God provide the definition of who the people of God are, thanksgiving provides further affirmation of the identity of God’s people when God’s gracious acts are remembered” (55). So, Pao argues, thanksgiving is more about remembering than about feeling grateful, as much as gratitude may stem from doing so.

This is the assumption that underlies Paul’s prayer that the Christians in Colossae would be “always giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light: he has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:12-13). We give thanks because God has acted, decisively, on our behalf. In this regard, “Thanksgiving…is understood as an act of faith. Thanksgiving becomes ‘an expression of faith’ as it remembers what God has done for us in Christ” (71). When we give thanks, we are acting on the assumption that something remarkable has happened; we are founding our lives and identities on it, and choosing to see reality in a way that is dependent on God and what he has done, and not on ourselves: “To give thanks to God is to remember what he has done for us. The call to thanksgiving is therefore a call to transcend the present moment as one searches for an anchor in which reality can be comprehended” (60). Or as Pao says elsewhere:

God, and not his gifts, is the primary focus of Pauline thanksgiving. In the constant act of thanksgiving, the relationship with God is nurtured. Through thanksgiving, the gracious acts are remembered and the life of a person is thereby changed. Thanksgiving then becomes an act of submission when the performance of such an act is not aimed at coercing God to act, but is a way to acknowledge him to be the Lord of all…. We are changed in thanksgiving, then, as we encounter this gracious God. In the words of Karl Barth…thanksgiving signifies ‘the change of the being of man before God brought about by the fact that God has altered His attitude to man’. (37)

The effect of a life “overflowing with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:7), then, is a God-centered life. It is a life rooted in the gospel, around the good news of what God has done for our sake. It is a life that sees reality truthfully: as God defines it through creation and redemption, and not as I do by living in it however I please. To give thanks to God is to acknowledge a new gravitational center to everything, and to put ourselves and everything we experience in orbit around it.

This needn’t be complex. It simply needs to come into our prayers and into our thoughts, more and more, in the face of the diverse realities that confront us on a daily basis: God our Father, I thank you that you have sent Jesus Christ to break into my condition, to live and die for me and for the world; I thank you that you have begun the new creation in him, and that in sheer grace you have united me to him by the Holy Spirit and forgiven my sins; I thank you that I am alive in him, and dead to sin through his death for my sake; I thank you for your love that says an unreserved “Yes!” to us in Jesus Christ; I thank you that you have loved the world you made, and have taken its sin and rebellion upon yourself to raise it up from the dead. By giving us perspective, our habits of thanksgiving help us respond rightly to the conditions of our own personal lives: we simply cannot live and act and make decisions in the same way, when we know that Jesus Christ has died and risen.

As I reflect on the topic of thanksgiving along these lines, the implications of all this for the worshiping life of the church seem profound. For Christians, it is precisely this understanding of thanksgiving that gets reiterated when we gather regularly for our own “Passover” meal, around the Lord’s table. In my Anglican church every week we recite the familiar words: “We lift our hearts up to the Lord…. It is right to give him thanks and praise!” And as the “Great Thanksgiving” or “Eucharist” proceeds, our pastor recites the mighty acts of God and brings them to our remembrance:

All glory be to you, Almighty God, for in your infinite love you made us for yourself, crowning us with glory and honor to rule over the works of your hands. But we did not give thanks to you or honor you as God, but turned away. Falling into sin, we and all your works became subject to misery and death. But you in your tender mercy sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all. He stretched out his arms on the cross, and offered himself there in obedience to your will—a perfect sacrifice for the whole world, once and for all. He died in our place, making a full atonement for our sins; by your mighty power you raised him from death, and crowned him with great honor at your right hand on high.

And after a prayer is said and the story of the last supper is recited, the thanksgiving concludes:

We celebrate this covenant with joy and await the glorious appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who will unite all things in heaven and on earth, raising us from death and making all things new! By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and forever. AMEN!

The bread and wine is then held forth and the pastor tells the congregation: “These are the gifts of God for the people of God: take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.” The whole act centers around (1) what God has done, (2) how this gives us our identity now, and (3) what our hopes for the future must be in light of this world-changing event. In all of this, we are being tugged into a new orbit around a new center—the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ—and being renewed in God’s image as a result, as we share in our new identity as members of the body of Christ.

But as the eucharistic liturgy in my tradition says, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty…” In other words, what we are doing here is practice for what the Christian life is supposed to be all about, all the time. Our lives are to be chiefly ordered by thanksgiving to God through the remembrance of his mighty act in Jesus Christ, which then issues in praise and joy, and in a perspective on the world that is rooted in its creator’s purposes.

So I would encourage you, having read this post, to adopt these habits as your own. A good way to start is by memorizing and reciting the opening part of one of the communion liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer every day; start coming up with your own ways of giving voice to what God has done in your own words; over time, integrate these habits of thanksgiving into your everyday life—let the remembrance of what God has done in Christ emerge again and again in your thinking, as you confront every decision, event, conversation, prayer, or whatever else it may be. The fruit of your labor in this will be a profound joy, arising from the ultimate aim of all our thanksgiving: God-centeredness.