Category Archives: Theology

Infant baptism and the faith of parents.

I had a conversation today about baptism. The Evangelical Covenant Church as a denomination recognizes both infant baptism and adult baptism as legitimate baptisms. We leave it up to the parents to decide if they wish to dedicate or baptize their infant. While the ECC officially recognizes baptism as a sacrament, we have a wide embrace and welcome into fellowship those who have differing beliefs about baptism: that is, some may choose to not baptize infants because they don’t think that’s the right thing to do, and they, in turn, allow others to baptize their infants, and we happily worship and serve together. (There are some ongoing pastoral and theological tensions with the ECC position on baptism and they can be frustrating at times, though I have not yet had to wrestle with them beyond a theoretical level.)

The person I had a conversation with understood infant baptism and dedication to be the same thing, because they are both a choice of the child’s parents. This is a common understanding in evangelical circles: that unless one chooses to be baptized, how can the baptism have any significance? From this angle, baptism is an expression or confession of an individual’s faith. Baptism viewed as a sacrament, on the other hand—that is, as an visible sign of an invisible grace, or a movement of God’s grace in a person’s life (the official ECC position)—sees baptism as much as, if not more, an act of God as of the individual.

This can be a difficult hurdle to jump over for someone from a low-church, anti-infant baptism background. That’s the background I came from and it took some in-depth study of scripture for me to accept the ECC position on the subject. I realized that whether you emphasize believer’s baptism or infant baptism, you argue from scriptural silence. That is, scripture doesn’t say anything directly for or against infant baptism. There are hints and suggestions (for example, in Acts when households come to faith and are baptized), but we don’t explicitly read about infant baptisms. But then the church in Acts was very young and growing; everyone was a first generation Christian, but infants are (technically) baptized only when their parents are followers of Jesus. That is, baptized infants would be become second-generation Christians, which isn’t possible if there isn’t a first generation.

It occurred to me today, however, that there is something else to consider in this discussion. The difficulty for many evangelicals with infant baptism is that an infant cannot yet have faith of their own. It is the faith of the parents that motivates the baptism. This is a foreign concept in a Christian culture which values an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus above all else; faith and baptism can only be the choice of the one being baptized.

But there is scriptural precedence for the faith of someone else benefitting another. There is, for instance, the sense in which the faith(fulness) of Jesus is our salvation as much as, if not more than, our own faith. But I’m thinking particularly of the paralyzed man whose friends cut a hole in the roof of the house Jesus was in, lowering him down to Jesus. According to the gospel accounts, the man was healed not because of his own faith, but because of the faith of his friends (Luke 5:17-26; Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:3-12)! (I won’t go to 1 Corinthians 7:14, which is a little hairier a passage.) Initially this little detail—the man’s friends’ faith healing him—is surprising. But when you consider that we pray for others all the time and that those prayers, regardless of the others’ faith, are often answered affirmatively, it doesn’t seem so strange. And if these things aren’t strange, is it possible that the faith of a parent is connected the baptism of an infant?

We are a highly individualistic society and tend not to think in these sorts of communal terms, to the point that such a thing doesn’t even make sense to us. I imagine it made a lot more sense in the first century.

Reciting the creed as counter-cultural act.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed, says that reciting the creed—he means the Nicene Creed, but I think it works for the Apostles’ Creed or others as well—is a counter-cultural act. What is being done when the creed is recited:

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40)

That’s not to say that churches need to be counter-cultural for the sake of being counter-cultural. However, the gospel is itself counter-cultural and yet the church is often pro-cultural—and often subconsciously so—so to be consciously counter-cultural in our worship serves as a good reminder about where our allegiances lie.

Some people are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the creeds—say, the virgin birth—that they may be reluctant to recite it, thinking that doing so would lack integrity. Justo Gonzalez, writing about the Apostles’ Creed in The Apostles’ Creed for Today, has this to say in response:

…think of the creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. (7)

To recite the creed with that in mind is also a counter-cultural act.

[Added: I'm reading up a bit on the ecumenical creeds of the church for a small group discussing the basics or essentials of faith. We don't recite the creed (or at least we haven't in my time) at our church and our denomination is "non-creedal" while still affirming the major ecumenical creeds, but these writers make a convincing case!]

The unchanging God who changes.

“Several centuries before Jesus’ birth, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had insisted that God was unchanging and utterly indifferent to the affairs of the world. If God cared about the world, he argued, then God would be subject to shifts of mood from every passing change in the world’s affairs. Having passions would destroy God’s perfection, for God would bend to the world’s every joy and pain.

Many Christians have accepted Aristotle’s conclusions, but I find myself agreeing with others, like fourth-century poet and theologian Gregory of Nyssa, who disagreed with Aristotle. Gregory denied that getting involved with the world would be a weakness in God. “God’s transcendent power,” he wrote, “is not so much displayed in the vastness of the heavens or the luster of the stars or the orderly arrangement of the universe or his perpetual oversight of it, as in his condescension to our weak nature.” God is, oddly, most powerful in stooping to our weakness.

Loving in this way, after all, is not a form of weakness but a manifestation of strength. Really loving involves taking risks–the risk of rejection, the risk of having to give of yourself to help the one you love–and real love takes those risks recklessly….

What then about Aristotle’s worry? Is such a God changing, altered by the changing circumstances of the objects of divine love, and therefore imperfect, even unreliable? It depends, from a Christian standpoint, what you mean by “not changing.” Love, after all, manifests its utter consistency precisely by changing. If I love you, and I do not change (grow sad, seek to help) when you fall ill or get into trouble, then my love has changed. True love stays the same by adapting to the changing situation of the loved one. We can be constant in love only by altering our moods and responses according to the circumstances of the object of our love. In that sense the loving God stays ever the same.”

(William Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith, 20-21)

Closed hands and self-reliance.

“Yet so many religious people are in bondage to their religion! They are like John Wesley in his post-graduate Oxford days in the Holy Club. He was the son of a clergyman and already a clergyman himself. He was orthodox in belief, religious in practice, upright in conduct and full of good works. He and his friends visited the inmates of the prisons and work-houses of Oxford. They took pity on the slum children of the city, providing them with food, clothing and education. They observed Saturday as the Sabbath as well as Sunday. They went to church and to Holy Communion. They gave alms, searched the Scriptures, fasted and prayed. But they were bound in the fetters of their own religion, for they were trusting in themselves that they were righteous, instead of putting their trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. A few years later, John Wesley (in his own words) came to ‘trust in Christ, in Christ only for salvation’…” (John Stott, commenting on Galatians 4:1-11, in The Message of Galatians).

Yes indeed. Salvation through faith as nothing more than open hands and surrender.

The things Wesley and his friend did were all good and admirable and appropriate to do. It’s the motivation that’s the problem. All of those things should be a response to a salvation freely offered, an act of gratitude for God’s prior gift to us, rather than a “necessary” act to earn something from God.

Faith as surrender (and Garrison Keillor as theologian)

Several years ago I posted about Miroslav Volf’s definition of faith, which goes as follows:

Faith is not something we give to God. In that case, faith would be a work, and a silly kind of work because it would be work we do even though it doesn’t benefit anyone. But exactly the opposite is true. To have faith in God is to be “without works” before God (Romans 4:5). Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill.

On the way home from some care home services this evening, I listened to Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” podcast from August 31, 2013. He concluded the week’s story with the following reflection:

“I used to think that faith… was sort of like a building block and you’d put all these blocks together and you’d build a house, sort of like the one the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender, it’s a matter of just giving up and leaving that house and just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude maybe that’s… all you need…”

Not exactly the same thing as what Volf said, but then Keillor’s a storyteller first, theologian second. But open hands held open for God to fill and the notion of surrender to God run along the same lines. I like it.

From Acts to the Prophets

This week I read through Acts and I noticed a couple of things. First, I noticed that not once in all the apostles’ presentation of the gospel did they mention heaven or hell (or the afterlife or eternity or what have you). They mention Jesus’ unjust death, his resurrection, his ascension to sit at the right hand of the Father; they mention repentance and forgiveness of sins; but they do not mention heaven or hell. This really has no bearing on the question of whether either one of those (particularly hell) exists. But it does have a bearing on the question of what is essential to the gospel. These days the gospel is couched in some form of the question, “Do you know where you will go when you die?”–sometimes more nuanced, sometimes more crassly. In one way or another, modern gospel presentations eventually come around to the question of heaven and hell. Not so for the apostles. Is it therefore essential to our presentation of the gospel? (As I recall, this is what McKnight touches on in The King Jesus Gospel and I imagine Wright goes there in How God Became King.)

I also noticed the continuing (from some of the Gospels) emphasis on promises and prophecies fulfilled in Jesus. Part of the apostles’ presentation of the gospel to at least the Jews was an argument of prophecy fulfilled in Jesus: the sense that he is the one they had been waiting for all these years, he is the promised one.

Which makes me wonder: how much background is assumed in their presentation of the gospel? We rarely bring the prophets into it these days (except maybe at Advent and on Good Friday) and I’m sure most of us don’t have a solid grasp of what the prophets have to say about Jesus. A few weeks ago in church I mentioned that if I had a chance to go back to any moment in history, Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus would be high on my list. It is with them that Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets… explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” I’d love to have been there, because I suspect that Jesus’ exposition of Moses, the Prophets and all the scriptures regarding himself would have been much deeper and more nuanced than the ragbag of proof-texts most of us would present.

So I’ve decided to spend some time in the Prophets. I’m not sure where I’ll begin yet. Isaiah has some of the most beautiful passages of scripture in it, but it’s also pretty intimidating. I’ve read (or attempted to read) it before and it’s easy to get lost. Many of the Major Prophets are intimidating, actually. And yet they seem so essential. But I want to go to the Prophets with a particular eye and ear for what they say about the Messiah and the “age to come” and how that sheds light on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, on heaven/the age to come/eternal life.

Kitchen conversations

The other day I was walking to work, between open fields pure white with snow. It was a clear blue day, the sun shining bright, but there was a cool breeze blowing across the fields, setting the power lines to humming. It put me in a bit of a melancholic mood, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I felt a bit of the isolation out here in this beautiful place we live, maybe a bit of loneliness.

I thought of my friends from Providence Seminary and the conversations we would have almost every day during class breaks. We’d wander the halls, almost inevitably ending up in the seminary kitchen area. Someone would boil water for tea, and we’d lean back against the counters or sit on them while we waited. We would discuss and debate and question and explain. There would be a number of conversations going on at once, spilling out into the hallway. It was mostly theology we talked about, stuff that came up in class, stuff we read, controversies we heard about, and all of it peppered with wit. Later we’d run into each other in the library or near the bookstore and we’d pick up where we left off.

Those were good years. And I miss them right now (water rises to my eyes).

I started this blog nine years ago last December. I didn’t own theeagleandchild.com at the time, but it was called The Eagle & Child right from the beginning.

The Eagle & Child is a pub in Oxford, England, where J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and other members of the Inklings would gather Tuesday mornings for a pint and some good discussion. They discussed their own literary works-in-progress, and I imagine theology and philosophy was also covered.

… The concept of the Inkling’s gatherings was sort of what I had in mind for this blog. It was to be a place where people “gather” to discuss life, faith, literature, philosophy, and so on. (from my About… page)

And for a time, at least, that’s what happened here. Lots of theological (and sometimes political) discussion and debate, and a bit of a community developed. I started blogging less and less frequently around the time I started to move towards vocational ministry and it almost died completely through the last three years of seminary. That was surprising to me, since I had expected seminary to provide lots of “blog fodder”. I’m sure there were a number of reasons for the decrease in blogging, but it occurs to me now that what I had envisioned for this blog–the, as it were, Eagle & Child experience–was happening in the hallways of Providence Seminary. I didn’t need this blog, because I was having face-t0-face discussion and debate.

That seminary kitchen was my Eagle & Child! Were I to start a blog like this now, I might just call it “Kitchen Conversations.” Kitchens are where the best conversations happen most of the time, and that particular kitchen in the seminary is where “the Eagle & Child” became real for me.

Maybe I’m idealizing. Maybe nostalgia has taken control of my memory and my emotions and circumstances and created something didn’t exist in quite the way I remember it. But I don’t have access to that kitchen any more. I won’t be discussing Torrance or Bonhoeffer or Wright or even Bell while leaning against that kitchen counter as the kettle begins to gurgle and spit. Not anytime soon, anyway.

So maybe this will mark a return to this space. And maybe it’ll mean more of a contribution to the joint blog I occasionally contribute to with the very guys I was having those discussions with. And new face-to-face conversations will be had where we live now, and they, too, will be good.

But I’ll still miss those seminary kitchen conversations.

We are all theologians…

…whether we like it or not.

For many, “theology” is a field of the academic world, out of the mental reach of the average person, and not really all that valuable in day-to-day life. It’s certainly true that much of what is known as theology is often written in nearly impenetrable prose. In this respect it really is “the science of God”, because people who “do” theology for a living (I’ll call them “vocational theologians”) have created specialized terminology in order to make dialogue between vocational theologians a little simpler: they could string a bunch of verbs and adjectives together when talking about God or some concept relating to God, or they could come up with a single word that encapsulates all of them. The one-word option makes communication much less cumbersome and less confusing within the field, just like the latin names of plants and animals may be a more efficient form of communication for botanists and entomologists (or for me to say “entomologist” instead of “guy or girl who studies bugs”). But to the rest of us, this also makes theology seem like the exclusive field of vocational theologians.

But here’s the thing: theology is simply “thinking about God” or “words about God”. Theology is what we do when we try to come to grips with who God is or understand what God is doing in the world, when we ask “Who is God?” or “What is God like?”. And we all do this. All of us. Even you. When you say, “Jesus loves you,” you are doing theology; when you say “God is love,” you are doing theology; when you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are doing theology. Even if you say “There is no God” or “God doesn’t care about the world anymore,” you are in some sense doing theology.

What the vocational theologians–the ones we may think of as impenetrable-prose, know-it-all hot shots–are doing is unpacking theological ideas, trying to get behind them. They are curious and want to know what it means, for example, that “God is love” or how the Three-in-One God might work. And the deeper they go, the more complicated it can sound. But just because you or I don’t go to these levels doesn’t make us any less theologians or make theology any less our business.

Karl Barth–possibly the most famous and important  theologian (at least within vocational theological circles) of the 20th century–wrote a 13-volume (6 million words!) theological tome called Church Dogmatics, on top of many other books. It’s not an easy read–it takes work to read. I think. That’s what I hear. I purchased a copy of the set on a whim (or possibly through mob shopping mentality) when they were made available at a once-in-a-lifetime price. I’ve opened the books on occasion and I will again, but they’re not easy. That much was clear after reading a page or two. But here’s the thing: there’s a story told (it’s not just a legend) in which someone asked Barth after one of his lectures how he would summarize his life’s work as a theologian. His answer was this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

What Barth and other vocational theologians do is unpack and examine the implications of our theological beliefs, asking the question “What does it mean when we or the Bible say ‘God is love’” But Barth and you and I are ultimately all thinking and talking about the same thing: Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Most of us just don’t have the desire or privilege to spend our days thinking about little else, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable for others to do so, or for us to draw on their thoughts and learning for our own benefit as individuals and as the Christian church.

 

Why do theology?

I can think of a couple of reasons why we might want to be more actively theological (as opposed to being accidentally theological). First, theology can be an act of worship and discipleship. There is value in contemplating the God we serve and to try and understand this God who seeks us out and who promises that he is with us. Theology is part of the pursuit of God, of getting to know God better, and in meditating what who God is means for our day-to-day lives.

This leads into the second reason theology is important for everyone: it shapes who we are, what we do, how we act, the choices we make. If God loves his creation so much that he enters into that creation to make things right, it has implications for how we deal with the wrongs in our lives and in the rest of the world, and with our broken relationships. If God says his creation is “very good,” it has implications for how we care for that creation. In other words, theology is connected to our action; how we understand God influences how we act.

So… theology is not by nature complicated. It can sound complicated, just like conversations about the mechanics of cars or farm machinery can sound complicated to those who are not mechanically inclined. But, unlike the world of the mechanics of internal combustion engines which not everyone can engage in, we are all theologians whether we know it or not.

To mangle a phrase from Larry Norman, “Why should all the vocational theologians enjoy all the theology?” They shouldn’t. You and I should too. Maybe not to the point of unintelligibility, but at the very least to think on who God is and what that means for us and for the world.

An Apocalypse of Love

(This is my Christmas Eve meditation from this year’s Christmas Eve service at our church.)

It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just over a week ago, there was the horrible shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 27 people, including 20 children, were killed. This last Friday was anticipated by some to be the end of the world, based on a particular interpretation and understanding of the Mayan calendar. People were buying bomb shelters, survival supplies, and some even stockpiling weapons. That same day, much closer to home, several Alberta school received what appeared to be threats of violence. Some of them were false alarms, but in Ponoka the school was locked down and a young man in possession of firearms was arrested in relation to this even–perhaps in imitation of Newtown, perhaps in anticipation of an apocalypse, perhaps for entirely different reasons.

It was a week or so of hatred, grief, and fear, and of nervous watching.

One question asked by many people this week was “Where was God?” It is a fair question and we are not the first to ask it. It is an ancient question. Biblical Israel used to ask essentially the same thing. “How long, O Lord?” is a question peppered throughout the Psalms and the prophets. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”

* * *

We live between two Advents, two “comings” of Jesus. The last several weeks and especially tonight and tomorrow, we mostly look back at the first Advent, but–let’s not forget–we also look forward to the second Advent. The first coming and the second coming. Both those Advents mark the end of the world as we know it. This time of year we actually do anticipate an apocalypse, but not, perhaps, as popularly depicted or understood.

The first Coming–the one that was promised long ago, was announced to a young girl, began in her womb, and was revealed in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough–this first coming was the coming of Love, with a capital “L”, into the world. Not a sentimental love, not love as some kind of nice, but abstract idea, but a living, self-giving Love, which took on flesh, became human, became a baby, helpless and weak. And the world was changed. It was the end of the world as it was known.

Why did Love come down? “For God so loved the world,” it says in the Bible. Love came down because the world was and is messed up and God loves this messed up world–not because it’s messed up, not because it may have potential–but because God is love and so loves the world in spite of what it is. And God knew that no effort of our own would be able to clean up the mess, no sentimental love or goodwill, no sweet notion of making the world a better place. Only Love with capital “L”, only love in its greatest, holiest, and most powerful sense, only a love in its purest most uncompromising form–only a love that gave itself fully for others–could make things right. Humans all ultimately turn away from this kind of true love, so Love had to come to us. That Love became human–became the baby named Jesus.

We’ve heard a lot about “apocalypse” lately, in books, in movies, in this news. This first coming of Jesus was an apocalypse. See, the word “apocalypse” does not mean “a time of zombies and nuclear bombs” as popular use suggests. The word means, simply and literally, “reveal” or “revelation”. Biblically, apocalypse is about revealing reality and God–telling us about the way the world is and the way it will be and the God who’s in charge of it all. God revealed himself in Jesus–this weak, helpless baby, who in the name of love would give himself for us. God’s love was revealed in this first Advent, in Jesus’ first Coming.

It was an Apocalypse of Love.

It was the beginning of the end. The world would be transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who turned this world of revenge, injustice, and pride upside-down with God’s world of mercy, justice, forgiveness, and love. Mary saw this, as we heard in her song, read a few minutes ago: the hungry filled, the oppressors overthrown.

The birth of Jesus is the answer to the question of God’s whereabouts. He’s right here, at work in the world. And the birth of Jesus is also the answer to that similar question that Israel had been asking for generations: “How long, O Lord?” The answer, in the fullness of time, was both “Now” and “Not yet.”

We still, in weeks like this one particularly, cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

And so we anticipate the second Advent, the Second Coming of Jesus. That will once again mark the end of the world as we know it. Not the end of God’s good creation, but the end of “the world” as we know it–the world of hatred, fear, violence, grief, death. This, too, will be an Apocalypse of Love.

It’s interesting that The End of the World, the “End Times”, the Apocalypse (whatever you want to call it) has become a thing of fear. We see this every time someone predicts the end of the world, whether it’s the Mayans or some obscure Christian sect: people buying shelters, stockpiling food and weapons; images of fire, zombies, death. Popular depictions of the end are terrifying–nightmare-inducing, even. Yes, there are beasts and boils in the book of Revelation, and facing Almighty God could put a different kind of fear in a person, but that book is meant to be encouraging, not terrifying, precisely because Jesus has come and is coming. It’s supposed to be good news.

Why? Because it tells us that in the end evil doesn’t have its way, but that Good prevails; that the God of Love will have his way and set the world right.

The post-apocalyptic world won’t be a barren, smoky desert of bedraggled wanderers, who daily live in fear of violence and death. It will be a lush, healing garden, where fear and grieving and death will have no place, because they will have been done away with.

Near the end of the book of Revelation, God says, “Look, I am making everything new!” And that work began with the baby in the manger, the Christ-child, the first of many brothers and sisters. God becomes human, born a baby–new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving–so that we can once again become children: reborn new, clean, innocent, trusting, loving.

There’s an apocalypse we can look forward to!

* *

We live between two Advents. We remember and celebrate the first Advent; we watch and wait for the second. In the meantime, God is at work in the world, and in and through us. When Jesus left the first time, he promised not only that he would return, but that his Spirit would come and live in us, that in this way he would remain with us. And so he did, and so he does, and while we wait, with the Spirit’s help we can each be a little apocalypse of God’s self-giving love.

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

“That’ll do”: God’s Grace in the Old Testament

“I have no charges against you concerning your sacrifices
or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.

I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,

for every animal in the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.

Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?”

- Psalm 50:8-13 (NIV)

I read the above Psalm this morning and it got me thinking again about animal sacrifice in the Old Testament. I have never understood what it was about the blood sacrifice that could possibly atone for individual or corporate human sin. What strange ancient magic in the universe could this be? From my 20th/21st century vantage point, that sort of thing has always seemed archaic, a relic from the ancient world that made sense in a particular context but not a whole lot in our own. And yet there it is: sacrifice, the shedding of blood in atonement for sin, is embedded the Christian meta-narrative. An essential aspect of Christian theology and doctrine that I don’t fully understand. I’m okay with that, actually. I don’t need an answer to all my questions to be compelled by the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And yet the mystery remains. Atoning sacrifice still doesn’t make complete sense to me. And to complicate matters, there are plenty of scriptures like the above Psalm which indicate that sacrifices are not needed by God or, in some cases, wanted by him. There are a couple of instances in the Psalms and perhaps most famously, Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, / and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” So we have a situation where sacrifice is necessary for atonement, but a God who does not desire those sacrifice.*

BUT… I’ve been reading John Stackhouse’s book Can God be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil. Later in the book he gives an overview of the Christian story of creation, fall, and redemption. He briefly covers the topic of sacrifice and I was struck by this passage:

Two principal images have been used by Christians to explain what Jesus accomplished on the cross: Christ as Sacrifice, and Christ as Victor. The former harks back to the extensive symbolism of Israelite temple worship, in which animals were killed and offered to God as substitutes for the human sinners who gave them up. “Life for life” was the basic principle, because sin at its root is the enemy of life. The Hebrew prophets themselves made clear that these rituals together formed an elaborate picture of God’s holiness (God views sin as mortally serious, and therefore the most graphic symbolism of life and death was necessary to portray its cost and its redemption) and God’s mercy (God was willing to accept animal substitutes, although it makes no logical or moral sense to do so: how can the blood of bulls and goats possibly make up for human sin?). The ultimate payment for, the ultimate cost of human sin, had to be borne by human beings. (133-4 in the 2nd edition)

What particularly struck me about this paragraph was animal sacrifice as a picture of God’s mercy. I have often been reminded that grace is not a concept limited to the New Testament and the coming of Jesus. The Old Testament is also filled with God’s grace to humankind. Looking at the story of Israel in particular, we see God repeatedly calling the wayward Israelites back. The Israelites were constantly breaking their covenant with God and therefore constantly placing themselves under God’s judgment. God is the giver and sustainer of all life and to sever our relationship with the Life-Giver means the end of life. God was perfectly within his rights to let Israel perish on any number of occasions. But God is slow to anger and rich in love, mercy, and forgiveness, and each time Israel severed their ties with him and walked away from the Life-Giver, God pursued and called them back to life and wholeness.

So grace and mercy are there in the Old Testament; Jesus didn’t bring in anything new in that regard. But I had never thought of the sacrificial system as a grace-filled thing. It was about restitution, atonement, making things right, and even (in my tradition) salvation by works. But the reality is that animal sacrifice itself does not forgive sin–only God forgives sin. And in his grace and mercy he provided Israel with a way to enact their repentance–to show that they acknowledged God–which, though not in itself sufficient to forgive sin, moved him to forgive.

Perhaps I’m taking Stackhouse’s words farther than they should be taken. Fair enough; what he said simply set my mind to thinking about grace. It makes a great deal of sense to me that, even though human sin is serious enough that death is a legitimate result, God, because he loves humankind so much and wanted things to be right between himself and Israel and the world, set up what was in fact a sub-par arrangement to atone for sin and said, “That’ll do,” and restored his wayward people.

Yes, things did change significantly with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We no longer need to offer blood sacrifices because the Final Sacrifice has been made. But God has always been full of grace and mercy, even in the Old Testament.

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* This leads to a tangent issue, of course: if we were merciful and truly acknowledged God, sacrifice for sin probably wouldn’t be needed.