A LOVE SUPREME

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Evangelistic



Galatians 1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

1:9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

1:11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin;

1:15-16 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being,

1:23 they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." (NRSV)

"What is the gospel? The Greek euangelion has come into English by way of Latin and French as evangel (cf. German Evangelium, French evangile). The more common gospel derives from the Old English godspel "good talk," and--like the popular phrase good news--is based on the etymology of the Greek word....

"The gospel of Christ is accordingly an abbreviation that points to the content of the gospel, which has already been alluded to in Paul's additions to the opening (vv. 1b, 4). Thus the gospel, which in his [Paul's] view is perverted by the troublemakers in Galatia, is the proclamation that God has created salvation in the event of Jesus' death and resurrection....For Paul this understanding has consequences in regard to the law and circumcision, which he will then discuss in the following chapters....The foundation of his [Paul's] argumentation is primarily the content of the gospel, the Christology. Subordinated to it are the Scriptures (for him, only the Old Testament) and the history of the gospel in Paul's own history from his conversion before Damascus to his activity in Galatia." (Dieter L├╝hrmann, p. 12-13, Galatians 1992)

Given enough time and energy, I hope to blog a bit through the book of Galatians....we shall see....in any event, something strikes my fancy as I read through these opening verses in Galatians. Paul is an evangelist. The Greek words that we translate as "gospel" and "proclaim" (or "preach") are very similar, euangelion and euangelizo, respectively. Why this is interesting is the link between proclamation and content, the relation between the way in which one is proclaiming the gospel and the gospel that is being proclaimed....and....of course.....that makes me think of my own prior background as an evangelical in the U.S.

From my experience in evangelical circles there has been a very rapid decline in enthusiasm for evangelism. I think that this creates a bit of an evangelical crisis. Evangelism, as it has been defined in the last fifty years or so, basically reduces to proselytizing: convince others that Christianity (or "a relationship with Jesus/God" as the contemporary language goes) is the religion of choice. As I said, from my experience, the younger set is kind of losing its steam for this kind of approach. So, most people really don't engage in proselytizing, at least not in a direct person-to-person mode.

To address this crisis of evangelism, the evangelism of choice these days is marketing manipulation. (Yes, I am negatively predisposed!) Contemporary evangelism has taken the form of media to the masses. Evangelical film, literature, and staged church performances attempt to persuade the nonbeliever of his or her need to become a believer. This seems more subtle to today's evangelical--rather than "preach" to people and put them off with a direct confrontation (as they did in the good 'ole days), the contemporary evangelical prefers the subtle, nonthreatening methods of modern media. In my opinion, however, it is simply a manipulation tool like all other manipulation tools in today's media age. This is evangelicalism in the digital age, evangelism as advertising, manipulation, and marketing.

My observation at this point is that we need to evaluate the link between the gospel message (euangelion) and the "proclamation" (euangelizo). Simply put, the reason that so many evangelicals cringe at the thought of direct evangelism is that the message itself is so threatening, uncomfortable, and just plain awkward. Things can get a bit uncomfortable when you mention to people, "Uh, there's this place called hell that you are going to....."

The received gospel that most evangelicals inherited is this: Everyone is going to hell because each individual (no matter who they are or what they have done) is a sinner, thankfully Jesus died for your sins and rose again, you need to now confess you are a sinner and have faith in Jesus so that you are no longer a hell-bound sinner. In most evangelistic presentations (and this is a crucial point), the emphasis is on the gap between God and human beings. Each individual is responsible for "repenting," "having faith," feeling really really guilty and bad, or responding in some way ("having faith," perhaps?) that will close this gap. Some gospel tracts illustrate this by showing a cross that bridges the gap. Your job is to walk across this cross that bridges the great divide.

Most "biblical evidence" for this received gospel is based on cutting and pasting verses together from various parts of the Bible. This is no accident, because the above gospel is simply not the gospel that Paul teaches. (It is Paul, incidentally, who develops the most thorough New Testament theology of the gospel.) There are verses that one can find to support this gospel, but then again, one can mix and match verses to come to most any conclusion.

Paul's actual gospel spends scant little time (if any) expounding on hell or the sinfulness of individuals. It's there, no doubt, in the classic texts like Romans 1 and Ephesians 2. But the point of such discussions, as I read them, is not to condemn people as much as it is to contrast two approaches to life: one view of life where one is consumed with themselves and ultimately destroyed by their own ego-obsessions, the other view of life is a life lived by faith, walking with the spirit in love (agape) and self-less-ness. It's not really about saving your own self from hell. Actually, this sort of spiritual narcissism ("how can I keep myself from burning in the next life?") is one of the problems.

Paul's gospel is much more progressive. Radically progressive, actually. It is about a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is about "reconciling all things" (Colossians 1:20). Furthermore, contrary to popular evangelistic efforts, the goal is not to elicit a spiritual experience of rebirth. Rather, the goal is to simply recognize that the fact that any person can join the happy band of the redeemed. For Paul, whatever happened on the cross took care of the gulf between God and man. So, living as a part of this merry band of new creationists is to simply recognize that you are already on the other side. The reconciliation has already taken place. There is nothing that a person needs to "do" to cross the bridge. That's been taken care of, which is why Paul spends most of his time talking about what it means to live out this new life, rather than talking about what we have to do to "get in" and "be saved."

So, maybe the reason why so many are losing interest in evangelism is because they never really had a very good gospel. And perhaps I can even be a bit more radical here: perhaps evangelism isn't about proselytizing. Perhaps it isn't about winning converts or "getting people saved." Maybe the great proclamation is simply to announce that there is no gulf between God and humanity, that God's focus for the world is reconciliation and peace, that personal and global transformation start with a gift of grace that is available to all, and that we need as many people as possible to get on board with this positive mission of reconciliation.

It's no wonder evangelism is petering out, or being relegated, impersonally, to mass media proselytizing. It's a dour, powerless gospel. Remember how Paul begins his letter to the Romans? "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the deliverance (soterian) of all who believe." This is a racial inclusivity, not an exclusive who's-in-and-who's-out approach. In Paul's letter to the Galatians power and transformation are also the focus. The life of the spirit produces the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Perhaps evangelistic zeal could be rekindled if a gospel was proclaimed that was a bit more in line with the radical vision of Paul. What is the radical vision? Simply that there is nothing to do, nothing to do to cross a bridge or any such nonesense. Grace is the ultimate do-nothing, which paradoxically transforms. There is nothing to do except to believe in a new creation and live by this faith. This gospel must be beyond formulas, beyond definition, and even beyond words. This is so because the gospel is about grace, which is ineffable.

So, as I read the first verses of Galatians and as I reflect on the state of evangelism today, the pivotal question that arises, the absolutely crucial question for a Christian, is this: have we got the right Gospel?

53 comments:

chris van allsburg said...

Jon,

I haven't read this entire post, but since you are going through Galatians, I am reminded of N.T. Wright's book on Justification, and I cannot commend to you enough. I think if you read this book, it will help you understand Paul's message of the gospel with greater clarity. Wright spends a good chapter dedicated to the exegesis of passages in Galatians, Romans, and everything in between.

Yours,
Chris

Like a Mustard Seed said...

I'm wondering here, when you quote Romans: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the deliverance (soterian) of all who believe", and say that this is not a statement of exclusivity, how do you explain this?

Because it would seem then in order to align it with the other points you are making, then the word "believe" then somehow winds up becoming a virtually meaningless word... Would you go so far as embracing the word "Universalism"? Because I have a hard time understanding what other conclusion there could be, based on what you are describing here. If grace is really a total "non-doing", then "grace" means that everyone is saved, that everyone, regardless of everything, deep down really "believes"...

Does that really align with what Jesus taught? Did He, or Paul, or any of the NT writers, really teach that in the end, we're all redeemed anyway? How many times does Jesus mention hell? What about Peter, Paul? Is that just 20th century mythology that has been read into the text, or does "exclusivity" leap out again and again and again?

Why was Jesus hated if His definition of 'grace' was "the ultimate non-doing"? (that actually sounds more like Buddhist philosophy than Jesus, to be honest)

One note I would agree on though... This gospel of "crossing the bridge" (the Bridge being Jesus) does absolutely sound "dour" to this generation, (and I'd venture to say that it has to every generation before it). But trying to judge the accurateness of the gospel based on how well the World receives it, is never a good idea. Of course the idea of mentioning a place like hell is unavoidably "awkward", but does that mean it is altogether untrue, or just a sobering, terrifying reality?

Is the use of slick marketing and lame mass media a sad turn of events? Absolutely! Does the modern, consumeristic American church accurately portray Christ and His message? No way... But we had better be careful not to reject the true gospel (which Jesus Himself told us would divide) while we're busy rejecting the Neo-Cons or the corporate-religious machine...

It is Jesus Himself who stands as the line of demarcation. It is based upon Him that we are "accepted" or "rejected". And while Christ definitely died for all our sin, and fully completed His work on the cross, it's no secret that not everyone loves Him, or wants to be in His Kingdom, nor is He going to force anyone into it (that would not be love...)

It was Jesus Himself who said, "There will be those who say 'Lord, Lord'... but I will answer them, 'Depart from me, I never knew you'."

Melody said...

Yes, evangelism has seen quite the down-turn. Of course you know "door-to-door" or "proclaiming" anything has roughly the same appeal for me as taking a vacation at Gitmo, but I suppose it does pose a bit of a problem to be Evangelicals who don't evangelize.

And perhaps you're right, the message is uncomfortable. We don't like uncomfortable so we wildly over-quote poor St. Francis & get plastered with our unbelieving friends, for Jesus. It's an evangelistic stupor.

But the message has always been uncomfortable. Jesus says to expect it to be uncomfortable. Plenty of people through-out history have made it past that and managed to do some proclaiming of their own. And evangelism, like the economy, has always had high and low points. It's low right now, give it a while, we'll have another "great awakening"...again.

You take issue with the idea of rebirth, but Jesus himself talked of being born again and Paul continues the idea, talking of being a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17) and in Galatians saying, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me". You can see similar ideas in Romans (ch. 6 esp.) when Paul spend quite a bit of space exhorting the church to be dead to sin, but alive to righteousness.

I think it's interesting that you state God's purpose to be "reconciliation and peace" and yet you seem to have a problem with people saying there's a rift between us and God. Wouldn't reconciliation require a rift of some sort?

You also talk at the same time about people already being where they need to be and about them joining God's "band of merry men" and even of them being new creations, which I personally find confusing. Because if they need to join, if they need reconciliation, if they need this newness...are they actually over that bridge? Are they actually already where they need to be?

To a degree, I agree with you. God's not asking a lot here. He's done the impossible stuff for us and Paul makes it very clear that no amount of doing will get us any farther. But equally crystalline is that this powerful deliverance requires faith on our part. Not salvation to all, but salvation to all who believe.

That's still quite inclusive. If you want it, this reconciliation, it's yours, but that doesn't make the declaration of our need for it any less uncomfortable to those who would rather do without.

Cynthia said...

I would be interested in how you answer like a mustard seeds questions. I would also say ditto to Melody.

You say "contrary to popular evangelistic efforts, the goal is not to elicit a spiritual experience of rebirth. Rather, the goal is to simply recognize that the fact that any person can join the happy band of the redeemed."
What I say to this is you tell that to someone that really was once lost but now found. Someone stuck in a life of drug-addiction, hate, murder, etc, who, after confronting the truth of their living savior Jesus, had a supernatural rebirth experience into the life of being/becoming a new creation, and therefore stepped off the road of destruction onto the road of salvation (I say it this way because salvation is a process, a journey). I bet this type of person would challenge the assumption that it is not about rebirth.

It seems to me that your point of view is common among those people who have been believers all their lives who have become cynical toward what appears to be a 2-dimensionality of faith that the church offers. As you know, I identify with this. I also appreciate that you are trying to emphasize grace. But Jesus embodied TRUTH and GRACE. This perhaps is paradoxical. But both truth and grace have to be present if you are to have the gospel of which Jesus, Paul and other apostles speak. A holistic look at the NT and bible as a whole present this fact. Psycologically and existentially there must be a framework of beliefs before you can truly understand and internalize grace. This is how the old covenant flows into the new covenant. This is how faith works within a believer. I even see this in my kids as I raise them (at a young age I have to set verbal and physical boundaries with them and consistently punish them for breaking those boundaries. As they get older, grace abounds more b/c their conscience of what is acceptable is at work. This is not speaking of faith, but interesting parallel in my opinon).

I would say that the biggest problem with evangelism is that there is the pharisaical disconnect between what people are saying and what people are doing. How can a Christian go tell someone about the love of Jesus and His salvation when they are not, with their actions, being the love of Jesus? How can someone who is full of hate, anxiety, and many other negative things honestly expect to represent Christ (especially to an unbeliever who has more love in his/her little finger than this example of a Christian does in his whole body)?

So the problem with evangelism is not a problem with the exclusivity of the truth (you must believe in what was freely offered), but how the american church is collectively confronting this truth. Individuals, especially those that have known the truth for long time, must not stop on the road of salvation at the beginning where we were first saved (the truth of the gospel), but keep on moving toward a deeper, more contemplative, more authentic faith (grace of the gospel). We must hope to be a holistic representation of grace and truth and love as Jesus was. Leave out any of these, and you don't have the gospel.

Oh, I struggle with this issue of hell, but it is very real in the bible, so I will not deny it. I also think that over-focusing on hell in evangelism is wrong (turns sharing gospel into fear-mongering) . Talking about death, however, is very pertinent to everyone.
Cynthia

Jonathan Erdman said...

Like a Mustard Seed,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

To clarify, the point of this post was not to say that we need to adjust the gospel if it doesn't sell well. I am just raising the question of whether or not we have the right gospel. If the gospel is power for deliverance, as Paul emphasizes, and we look around and see a gospel that is (by and large) powerless, then I think it might be time to ask ourselves if we have the right gospel.

Central to most gospel presentations is the idea that we are separated from God and we need to walk across the bridge to get to God. I posted several illustrations of this. My suggestion is that redemption and reconciliation already has happened.

"Belief" is important. But belief is not primarily for the purpose of moving us into a state of being reconciled. The reconciliation has already happened. The belief, the act of faith, is to live out a life of reconciliation and extend that reconciliation to others.

So, my suggestion is that the 20th century formula has it wrong. The reconciliation between God and humanity is already in place. Our job is not to move from our "sins" into eternal security. Our job is not to fully understand the spiritual ramifications of being reconciled to God, and we then work to help others understand (i.e. believe or have faith in) reconciliation.

This is still a gospel that will bring a good deal of resistance. It is still a "stumbling block" and a "scandal," I assure you. The world prefers self-serving activities. This leads us to war against each other. If anyone (Christian or not) steps into this madness and suggests peace and reconciliation, he or she will be opposed. Even suggesting that the U.S. as a nation work toward peace and reconciliation rather than warring against "terror" will garner much opposition (even from fellow Christians, ironically).

There is no power in a gospel that just moves us from one cliff to another. That's just eternal fire insurance. Something deeper is required. This is the "new creation." The new creation is a dynamic process of the Christian life. I believe that Paul introduces us to a life of exploring grace personally in a dynamic spiritual union with the spirit of God, living out the fruits of the spirit in relation to others, and doing everything we can to empower the powerless and reconcile the world to each other.

For Paul, the power comes from embarking on a life fully sold out to reconciliation and the fruits of the spirit. It's something that energizes us from the gut. We aren't trying to move people from one cliff to the other, because God's already done this. The "deliverance" (soterian) for those who believe only kicks in when we invest our whole self in the gospel. So, belief is really important. I don't mean to suggest that belief is not important. But the gospel is not about having the belief to move us from one cliff to another. The belief is an embrace of something much bigger and transformative. Beyond words, really.

For me, then, that makes the universalist debate superfluous. The gospel is not about who's in and who's out. It is about believing in something that is truly transformative.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. Does that at least help clear up my position?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody/Cynthia,

I wanted to clarify the issue of rebirth.

My original comment was: "contrary to popular evangelistic efforts, the goal is not to elicit a spiritual experience of rebirth. Rather, the goal is to simply recognize that the fact that any person can join the happy band of the redeemed."

My point was not to suggest that rebirth is not real. I did not mean to denigrate rebirth. It is really important. In John's gospel it is central: you must be born again. For Paul, the idea is that of "a new creation."

I take issue with those who believe that they can elicit rebirth based on a belief in a salvation formula. So, for example, if people "believe" all of the formula: Everyone is going to hell because each individual (no matter who they are or what they have done) is a sinner, thankfully Jesus died for your sins and rose again, you need to now confess you are a sinner and have faith in Jesus so that you are no longer a hell-bound sinner.

But having a belief in a formula is never mentioned in the Pauline epistles. That's my problem with the formula evangelism approach. But rebirth itself is a very important and holy spiritual concept, one I think needs to be central. It's just that rebirth is mostly out of our control and out of our hands.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody,

I do agree with you that there are those who would rather do without it.

You said: To a degree, I agree with you. God's not asking a lot here. He's done the impossible stuff for us and Paul makes it very clear that no amount of doing will get us any farther. But equally crystalline is that this powerful deliverance requires faith on our part. Not salvation to all, but salvation to all who believe.

Could you explain what you mean by "believe"? And what does "salvation" mean to you? Do you by-and-large subscribe to the cliff theology, that we need to walk across the bridge to get to God?

I am interested in how you see it. For me, I interpret "salvation" not as being saved from hell but as the beginning of the process of being delivered. So, I would interpret the Ephesians 2 passage as, "For by grace you are delivered, through faith, and this not of yourself, it is a gift of God..." The deliverance is, imo, a life-long process. So, "belief" is also a process. Faith is never finished. The problem I have with the cliff theology is that it suggests that something definitive has happened. In reality, I think God has already moved us to the other side of the cliff. We just need to spend our lives living out the implications. This is my reading of the Apostle Paul and the gospel.

Cynthia said...

Ok, so using this not so great metaphor(which btw has proven an effective picture of salvation for many)of the cliff of man, the divide/gulf, and the cliff of God, would you say that all people are already on the cliff of God- with or without belief? If not, what is the result- or what are the implications of that? Do you believe in eternal separation from God (hell)? Or do you simply think that "hell" is an ego-centric, faithless life lived on earth that will be reconciled in heaven regardless of beliefs?

Again, I see where you are going with this and I like that you are suggesting that there are no formulas to incite the depth of faith that is the goal of the gospel, but I think you are coming too close to undermining the simplicity of truth that can bring initial understanding of need on the part of the one recieving the gospel message. It is like Kierkegaard said, you have to know there is a need before you can truly accept a solution. Simply saying to someone, hey, come join our peepy people parade of reconciliation and peace (which,btw, you are actually already apart of)conveys no real need to anyone. Approaching the gospel in this way might produce a similar phenomena as the hippy Jesus movement did, but will it actually produce a depth of faith consistant with what Jesus asks of his disciples?

This discussion reminds me of the tension between free will and predestination. There is a mystery there that humans can't fully understand, no matter how much good theology there is on the subject. There is also a mystery to a heart to heart sharing of the gospel. We can never truly know how significant we have been or not been in bringing someone to faith.

For the record I don't like gospel tracts and silly illustations that undermine the enormity of salvation and God either. But some people do and i'll even say that some (few actually)use them well.

john doyle said...

I look forward to the rest of your exposition if you do it, Erdman.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Cynthia,

Thanks for pursuing this. This really gets me thinking.

You mentioned Kierkegaard and the fact that people must recognize their "need." Here is what you said: "I see where you are going with this and I like that you are suggesting...but I think you are coming too close to undermining the simplicity of truth that can bring initial understanding of need on the part of the one recieving the gospel message. It is like Kierkegaard said, you have to know there is a need before you can truly accept a solution."

Before I answer this, I think maybe I need you to expand on what you mean by "need." What is the need, exactly, in your observations of humankind (and also your study of scripture, if you care to comment on that end of it)? And could you talk about why you think it is important to recognize this need.

You also said: would you say that all people are already on the cliff of God- with or without belief? If not, what is the result- or what are the implications of that? Do you believe in eternal separation from God (hell)? Or do you simply think that "hell" is an ego-centric, faithless life lived on earth that will be reconciled in heaven regardless of beliefs?

Yes, I would say that people are already on God's side of the cliff. On the subject of hell, I am agnostic.

On a personal note, after twenty some years of Christianity I found myself having to face the realization that at the deepest level I did not believe that God really loved me for who I was. It took me a few more years to work through this. I believed that God was most fundamentally a God of wrath and judgment, the cosmic moral scorekeeper. I wrestled with this for a while and basically came to two conclusions. (1) That living with this belief did very little to help transform me (because judgment and condemnation can never really change the heart) and (2) That this was not the vision of the New Testament. So, ever since I haven't really ever bothered with thinking or studying on hell. (The purpose of this post, for example, is to deal with the Apostle Paul's theology. Isn't it interesting that Paul really doesn't say much about hell? I don't know that he ever even mentions it!)

I generally try to leave people's eternal destiny in the hands of God. The New Testament generally does not say all that much about hell, so neither do I.

Again, thanks for the discussion points.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Chris,

I'll have to mosey on over to N.T. Wright's website and check out some of his essays. Perhaps he makes some similar points.

Generally speaking, I agree with the New Perspective's critique of Protestant theology and the fixation with the legal elements of substitution atonement. However, from my exposure to the New Perspective, I don't know that they quite capture the radical nature of Paul's break from law and emphasis solely on grace and the life of the spirit. I would like to maintain Paul's radical emphasis on grace while losing the legal fixation of the reformers. That's my thought at this point, anyway.

Melody said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jon. That helps.

I'm not sure my definition of "believe" matters here as much as the definition that Paul and the other NT writers are using. They use it a lot, often in reference to gaining salvation and usually without caveat.

Technically, "believe" just means to accept something as truth, though James does make a point of distinguishing between that type of belief ("even the demons believe and tremble!") and the belief of saving faith, which noticeably transforms. Paul also discusses this at length and Jesus always seems (to me) to be of the opinion that believing in Him is more than a simple cognitive acknowledgment of His deity and our depravity.

Believing, in the NT, is following. Not just acknowledging God, but aligning ourselves with Him.

I don't know that I have a problem with the cliff picture, though it is a simplistic explanation.

Before we believe we are separated from God. As there is nothing we can do to jump the canyon, there is nothing we can do to make ourselves right with God. We are wholly dependent on His Grace, which we are fortunate enough to have in abundant supply.

Seems ok to me. I have no problem with it, though I would call it a picture of that first step and not of our entire relationship with God. It gets us to God, we have access, which we would not have without Jesus' death on the cross or a lot of animal blood and entrails. I think that's all that picture is supposed to be.

And that step, yes, it's a definitive moment in time when God calls out to us and we answer back by stepping toward Him.

But I would also whole-heartedly agree that after that step there is so much more to salvation than spending the rest of our lives appreciating that reconciliation. It's a breath-taking beginning, but all indications are that it is just the start.

Cynthia said...

Need for the Savior Jesus and an ensuing personal, long-lasting, dependent relationship with Him. Various physical conditions can make you realize spiritual need. I think Kierkegaard is valuable in that he accurately describes personal crisis in which there should be a realization of spiritual need. Many examples of need in the Bible. The OT is full of them. Psalms chronicle the visceral, heart-felt pleas of need of David and others. In Ecclesiastes Solomon comes to conclusion that there is nothing that will bring satisfaction to the soul other than knowing, loving, fearing God. The Gospels are rife with the physical, emotional, and spiritual needy coming to Jesus as their savior. He actively condemns those that don't see their need for Him. I'll have to do some work to get specific Bible verses if you want. I just think that the overwhelming essence is that of people being spiritually needy, then realizing that need, and then coming to faith in God.

The human condition is that of varying degrees of need. The goal in evangelism is not to create need- that already exists. It is to really listen and see and care enough about people to perceive where they are at in life so that you can relevantly point them to the ultimate truth and answer found in Jesus.

To the question of why it is important to recognize need, answer is simple. If we really believe that Jesus is the truth, the life, and the way- if we really believe that He is the ressurection and the life- if we truly believe that the way of destruction is wide and the path of salvation is narrow- if we really believe that there is no other way to the Father God than through Him, then we as Christians should really see the value of recognizing this need inherent in all humans.

i see how your background has influenced how you understand things now. But I would say it seems that you are swinging to the opposite extreme of the spectrum from how you originally interpreted God. I think there is a middle ground here.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Cynthia,

I agree with you that human beings, generally speaking, are in need. I also like what you say about varying degrees of needs.

In light of this, I like what you said here about the goal of evangelism, it is really instructive. The goal "is to really listen and see and care enough about people to perceive where they are at in life so that you can relevantly point them to the ultimate truth and answer found in Jesus."

I appreciate your above points, but I don't see how my approach undermines any recognition of the human spiritual need. I think being preoccupied with careers, pleasure, the comforts of the modern industrial and technological world, etc. are things that can numb us to recognizing our spiritual needs, but I don't know that Paul's gospel (interpreted as I have in this post) of reconciliation results in us not recognizing spiritual need.

It just depends on how we define "need." I don't interpret need in terms of the cliff theology (that we are on one cliff and God is on the other and we need to get to the other side). The real need is a rescue from the "powers of the air" (i.e., those things that negatively influence each culture, see Ephesians 2), the power of sin in our lives (see Romans 1-7), and the desires of the flesh (again, see Romans and also Galatians 5). This need is of a deep spiritual path of truth. For Paul, this spiritual path starts (and ends) with grace. It is also embarking on a path to be holy, contemplative, peaceful, loving, and working to reconcile the world.

So, my question is how the cliff theology helps us to have a greater recognition of our need. I tend to think that my reading of Paul helps us to focus more specifically on the real need. The reconciliation has already occurred in Christ. Working and living this out is the need. Appropriating this through faith is the path.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks again, all, for these thoughtful comments. I enjoy it much.

Now off to finish baking some bread for Thanksgiving tomorrow. I volunteered for bread duty.....the real need is to knead!.....jk!....blessings to you all.

Cynthia said...

I have a great recipe for artisan bread that needs no kneading. It is seriously the best bread I have ever had! But kneading bread is actually pretty fun to do.

Just a couple of comments. I think that the big difference here is I don't think that all people are on the cliff of God (practically, it is not what we see with human eyes) and I don't always have a problem with people mentioning that fact in evangelism. Perhaps when talking to those who are caught up in the "powers of the air", who see no need for God, talking about the real separtation between them and God that will lead to destruction (hell) is a good thing. However, for those who are truly down and out the focus should be on the reconciliation.

As you said earlier, we can't know for sure someone's eternal destination (heaven of hell bound). God as a unique abiltiy to look inside of someone's soul to see what is really there, regardless of what we see. Some people can mirror this ability, but never to the extent of God. The NT while its focus is depth of faith, love, and grace, does talk about judgement, destruction, and hell. The middle ground here would be to not deny any of this by explaining it away as merely symbollic of ego-centric, faithless life (which is not always destructive in a practical sense) but hold these two ideas in paradoxical tension and submit to the mystery of it. The bottom line is all we can do is love God and love others enough to really try to understand what they are thinking so that we can offer them what they truly need. Some need to be warned of imminent destruction and then freely offered salvation. Some are so destroyed already that what they really need is to hear the sweet words of reconciliation.



Do you see my point of view?

Have a great thanksgiving!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Cynthia,

Yes, I see your perspective, and I can appreciate it.

You said: Perhaps when talking to those who are caught up in the "powers of the air", who see no need for God, talking about the real separtation between them and God that will lead to destruction (hell) is a good thing. However, for those who are truly down and out the focus should be on the reconciliation.

In light of this, you might be interested in some of my experiences at the local jail. The idea of divine, eternal wrath and damnation seems to be alive and well, even though most (if not all) of the folks in the jail are at the lowest point in their lives. For example, there is a massive mural painted on the wall of the chapel that shows people burning in hell and a gigantic hand of God presenting people with the Bible, presumably the words of life to help them along their way.

From what I can gather, there are some (or many perhaps) in the jail ministry who focus more positively, but there is certainly a presence of condemnation for all those who do not subscribe to being on the other side of the cliff!

Jonathan Erdman said...

And thank you, Cynthia.

I wish you a happy thanksgiving as well.

And a happy thanksgiving to all.

john doyle said...

Personally, I think Christianity would be more interesting if it could elaborate on what sort of "new creation" might take shape. Having personal needs met, getting saved, etc. seem like the preliminaries. Saved for what? The new creation idea suggests outfitting a cadre of new creators to do something worthwhile and important together. That's why allegorical stories like Lord of the Rings are appealing: the fellowship is brought together for achieving grand and heroic deeds. Historically the church has taken on collective projects like crusades and inquisitions and witch hunts, which surely got the believers juiced but which seem in retrospect like bad energy. What else is worthy of the collective commitment of redeemed lives? Evangelism? Zzzz...

Jonathan Erdman said...

Doyle: Personally, I think Christianity would be more interesting if it could elaborate on what sort of "new creation" might take shape. Having personal needs met, getting saved, etc. seem like the preliminaries. Saved for what? The new creation idea suggests outfitting a cadre of new creators to do something worthwhile and important together.

Well said. And this I think is Paul's emphasis. Jesus did the reconciliation, so dwelling on atonement isn't the point. The point of Paul's gospel is to expound on how the new creation might look like. And, I might suggest, Paul does not presume to take the last word on this. Ultimately, he seems to present his theology as a starting point: living out the agape love of Christ as a new creation. It seems like an ongoing work of each generation to hash that out.

I have a good deal of trouble with many conservative evangelical worship services because the point of so many is to fixate on atonement issues: singing songs about blood, sermons about how bad we were before Christ, how bad the world is because they are on the other side of the cliff, etc. A worship service more in line with Paul's gospel (I would think) would focus more on the ramifications of the new creation, as you suggest.

Unfortunately, I think that many of recent decades's challenges of traditional Protestant atonement theory have kind of led to many churches (and seminaries as well) to hunker down and focus even more on what they believe is the gospel, namely, atonement theory. Perhaps that is a casualty of our mass media age, where publishers cash in on exaggerated controversy. Or perhaps it is a reflection the folks in the U.S. these days, that is, how divided and polemical we have become. In any event, it makes reasoned and fruitful discussions difficult.

Lastly....good illustration with the Lord of the Rings. Yes, I think that's a good parallel.

Cynthia said...

While I don't have a problem with the mention of sin in world. I do feel that there is way too much focus on that in traditional services. What really bothers me,though, is this idea that we must sacrifice the self in order to follow Jesus (this takes many forms and is rampant). I feel like this promotes a sort of gnostic dualism in which the human self is horrible and sinful while the spiritual self is somehow what is perfect and holy. I totally disagree with this and believe that this is why so many Christians are stuck in what Kierkegaard would call despair.

To the issue of being a new creation, I think that, within the framework of Christianity, this is going to look very different depending the individual. Find who you are in terms of what are your natural passions and live those out in the framework of God's truth, love, grace. There is no formula or spiritual test that can show you who you are. Finding oneself/becoming a new creation is a beautiful process and should be embraced by the church as necessary for the health of the whole. This, in my opinion, is essential if we are truly going to maximize our evangelistic approach in our culture.

I would also say that while the people you work with in the jail are very lowly according to worldly standards, you still need to really get a feeling of where they are at in terms of giving them what they need spiritually. Many times I have gone into situations nievely thinking that all they needed was a message of reconciliation only to realize that there was more needed to convey the whole truth. Basicly there is no place high or low where people can't be caught up in destructive cultural norms. But I still appreciate your point and see where there is a problem in that situation.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, C, I agree with you on avoiding the dualism that Protestants can fall into: a "new creation" and a "sin nature" that kind of compete against each other. In fact, the more I have thought about it over the years, the more I think that the whole Augustinian-Calvinistic doctrine of depravity has just really warped our sense of being human. I think that doctrines of depravity address some good points, but there just seem to be a good deal of philosophical and existential objections against many of the concluding doctrines.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Jonathan,

Thank you for response. I think it did clarify some things, yet I still find there to be many things left in a somewhat ambiguous place in my understanding...

You talk about 'reconciliation', but what exactly do you mean by this, when you seem to reject any emphasis on Christ's atonement or His work on the cross? You say, "The reconciliation has already occured", which of course is true, but how was it accomplished? By God snapping His fingers? Or a bloody, uncomfortable death on a cross? Why did Jesus have to die then, if sin is really just some sort of later Protestant invention that had no real place in the original gospel?

You say, "belief is important", but then work to distance yourself from an "in or out" sort of stance. So what are you saying, when you say the question of Universalism is superfluous? Are you saying there is no "in or out" in the first place, that we all just "are"? Why, exactly, is belief really all that important then?

Do you see the gospel as something which really only has temporal/earthly implications? (i.e. a social gospel...) and if so, what do you do with all the scripture which talks about the Resurrection, and the Kingdom which is to come?

I totally hear you and agree with the notion that the Gospel is not about just getting some sort of eternal "fire insurance", and it is sad that it has been misrepresented that way. Yes, faith must be transformative, otherwise it is dead and worthless, a mere set of empty doctrines. But, what is the Faith that can truly transform someone from the inside out? Is it any kind of faith? Is it faith in any sort of higher power? Is it faith in oneself, or faith in faith maybe?

The Bible is clear that it is only faith in Jesus that can transform from death to life, both in this life, or the next. This is why the rather cheesy and oversimplified metaphor of the bridge and two cliffs does in fact hold up, to a certain limited extent. Believing in Christ doesn't "build" the bridge, (He himself built it) it is simply belief in Him which propells us to abandon the Kingdom of this world, for His eternal Kingdom. It's not just some self-serving axiom about saving your butt from the fire... It's about repentance, about dying to the person I was before. And that is not some antiquated, unsophisticated concept. It is the only way to peace...

The world can talk all day of achieving peace and prosperity (and the world does, constantly...) but peace will always elude them, until they come face to face with the Prince of peace, who rose from the dead and is alive and at work today...

D

Jonathan Erdman said...

D,

Thanks for continuing the discussion. Let me see if I can clarify things. My position on the Gospel (though I believe it to be more faithful to the biblical text) does not fit neatly into contemporary categories.

You asked: Why did Jesus have to die then, if sin is really just some sort of later Protestant invention that had no real place in the original gospel?

As I understand Paul's gospel, the cross represents the reconciliation of all peoples (Jew/Gentile, male/female, slave/free) to God and to each other. That is, in a post-cross world, all peoples are already reconciled with God and with each other. The cross, then, is very important, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise.

Also, sin has many deadly ramifications. But this is equally true for believers as it is for unbelievers....as seems true in the biblical text, and I am sure experience teaches this to all of us. But the primary problem with sin is not that it puts us on one cliff and God on the other. This, I think, misses how deeply ingrained sin is in our psyche. This is also where psychology can be very helpful. Psyche in greek can mean "soul." The original modern psychologists (whether atheist or theist) seemed to understand that they were dealing with soul-level speculation.

You asked: Do you see the gospel as something which really only has temporal/earthly implications? (i.e. a social gospel...) and if so, what do you do with all the scripture which talks about the Resurrection, and the Kingdom which is to come?

I would not say that the gospel has only temporal implications. Transformation is more than a temporal thing. It seems holistic and everlasting. So, whatever transformation takes place on earth seems to have eternal ramifications. Personally, I think that life in the here-after is (and should remain) something of a mystery. What is most real to us now is the present. Our mission is for the present. Certainly, we can be motivated by eschatological concerns, but I do not believe that these are our primary motivations.

You said: But, what is the Faith that can truly transform someone from the inside out? Is it any kind of faith? Is it faith in any sort of higher power? Is it faith in oneself, or faith in faith maybe?

I would say that faith is all of the above. It is quite ambiguous. Hebrews 11 makes it clear that faith is dealing with unseen things and with hope. These are intangibles. Rather than pontificate a doctrine of faith, the author of Hebrews prefers to show it in action, so he provides examples of what faith looks like. I think this is instructive. Rather than try to define faith, we need to recognize that it is firstly a lived experience and secondly that it is deeply personal and subjective.

The Bible is clear that it is only faith in Jesus that can transform from death to life, both in this life, or the next.

Sure. I don't think anything I have said would take issue with this. I just think that most Christians too narrowly define "faith in Jesus." To be a more inclusive Christian, one need not surrender this.

You also asked: Why, exactly, is belief really all that important then?

Perhaps this is the heart of our disagreement. I don't really think we are all that far apart, however.

to be continued....

Jason Hesiak said...

i saw the word gnostic there, lol

Jonathan Erdman said...

D (aka Mustard Seed),

You also asked: Why, exactly, is belief really all that important then?

I think that the parable of the prodigal son is instructive, at least for illustrating where I am coming from. The son prodigal was always loved by the father. He was not standing on one cliff, teetering on eternal damnation. He was always loved by the father. And this is key (in my mind anyway): the prodigal was never outside of the love of God. Never.

At some point, the prodigal decided to trust himself to the mercy of the father. He did not really believe that the father loved him. And he certainly didn't need someone to show him a chart about how he was on one cliff, surrounded by the wrath of the father, and that he needed to have faith to get to the love of the father. (Yet this is what evangelism became in the 20th century.)

All that the prodigal needed was a little smidgen of faith, faith of a mustard seed, if you will. The son in this small amount of faith merely intended to ask his father for a servant's position. After all, it was better than dinning with the hogs.

By faith he returned home. This ushered in his new life. This is the point of belief and faith: Not that we are in the wrath of God or outside of the father's love, but that we merely need to have a little trust and faith in what is already there. The more faith we have in God's love, grace, and reconciliation, the more we can enter into new life. But it is faith in grace and love that activate the new life, this is the new birth and this is the Pauline "new creation."

I think the gospel gets sidetracked at every turn. The gospel we proclaim needs to take grace and love all the way down, from beginning to end, uncorrupted by talk of eternal damnation (prior to accepting Christ) or legalism (that often occurs after we accept Christ).

Paul says that these three remain: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these (Paul says categorically) is love.

I see Paul's version of the prodigal son found in Galatians 4. I have blogged on this recently in Slaves and Heirs. In Galatians 4 Paul says that our pre-conversion days were not like being on one cliff and God on the other. Rather, Paul describes it as though we were heirs awaiting our inheritance. We didn't look much different than slaves, but belief changed all that. Belief and faith allows us to access the inheritance.

The gospel, then, as Paul lays it out seems to be a continued commentary on the prodigal son.

Would you agree?

Thanks again, Daniel, for your thoughts. I appreciate this discussion very much.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hesiak,

You see the word gnostic everywhere!

Jason Hesiak said...

g

n o

s

t

i c

Jason Hesiak said...

that didn't turn out to look as "everywhere" as it did when i typed it in, lol

Jason Hesiak said...

The son prodigal was always loved by the father. He was not standing on one cliff, teetering on eternal damnation.

No but he was a lonely soul doin' it with prostitutes and eating pig slop, lol.

Jason Hesiak said...

<-------------liked the prodigal son explanation

but what if the prodigal son crossed a bridge that spanned 2 cliffs on his way home? :P
i think jesus left that part out, lol

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hesiak,

Your gnostic fixation has clearly driven you to the point where you are now teetering on the cliff of sanity.

Jason Hesiak said...

Well thankfully the sanity of God’s big rock cliff thing has a certain magnetism to it, keeping me from fully tottering over - in my instanity – into that strange abyss between the 2 cliffs that require a safe passing bride.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Yeah, I'd agree this has turned out to be a pretty interesting conversation, and your last comment, and the link to that previous post on Gal. 4, really helped clarify some things. Thanks for taking the time to explain...

As I was reading back through chapter four of Galatians, and thinking about what you are saying, what struck was this question: Does this verse then imply that everyone has experienced, or will experience, the slave/child-heir phenonomenon?" (going back to the question of Universalism again) Is everyone "born again"? Is Paul talking about all people, in a generalized way, or is he talking specifically to believers in Jesus? I understand many of your questions about the validity of some of our "conversion experiences", and I must confess that is has been something I have wrestled with myself, having grown up in church my whole life. It has been very hard for me to pin down any particular moment or even season where everything drastically got turned on it's head. Looking back, I can see where much of God's work inside me happened without my even realizing it... But this is not the case for everyone. For some people, it literally is like waking up one morning and being a completely different person than before...

All of this, of course, connects back to your thoughts on the whole believer/unbeliever dichotomy, and as I read that, the conversation began to make even more sense. Because if we are unconvinced that there really is any kind of distinction, any sort of real difference between someone who belongs to Christ, as opposed to the World, then it becomes increasingly difficult to make sense out of scriptures like Galatians 4...

What's sort of iteresting to me, when you step back and look at it, is the fact that Paul is writing this letter, warning these people in the first place. Why is he warning them? Why does he say that he fears he has wasted his efforts on them? Why does he seem so concerned that they not go back to putting themselves under the Law once again? (ch.5,vs.2-4)

What Paul is effectively saying is that they can go back to being slaves once again, and if they do, then Christ is of no value to them. What a thing to say! But aren't they always loved? Of course. That is not in question. What is at stake is the matter of freedom, or slavery, based on what the people choose to follow after. Either freedom, which comes through faith in Christ and His perfect sacrifice, or slavery, through trying to achieve righteousness on one's own. Gal. 5:4 says: "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (fallen away from grace???)

And isn't that the whole point that whoever came up with that cliff/bridge illustration was trying to make? The main feature of that picture is the gulf, the chasm, the big uncrossable hole in the middle. Paul is basically telling these people, "Look, if you go back to trying to keep the Law, you are going back to attempting to build your own bridge to God, and that just won't work"...

Like a Mustard Seed said...

But if it becomes taboo to make any mention of wrath or damnation, (and how much of the Bible would we have to throw out then...) then how does a story like the Prodigal Son retain any meaning? Did the total and unswerving love of the father in the story mean that the isolation and misery of the son in the pigsty was an illusion? Did it mean that the runaway son hadn't done anything to offend the father, or disgrace himself? No. But that is why a word like grace actually means something! Because there is a real offense, and a very real divide that happens as a natural result. If there was no offense, no tragedy, nothing broken or "negative" about what happened in the story, then the father would not have had any reason to celebrate the son's return. There would have been no embrace, no ring on the finger or big feast. The dad would've just been like, "oh, hey son..."

If the cliff/bridge illustration is off because it conjurs too much thought of damnation, then the only alternative is to take a position of there being no dire situation in the first place. Then there is no chasm, no seperation, (other than maybe one that exists within the mind of the person). This kind of logic tells us the pigsty is actually just as lovely a place as the Father's house. There is no need to leave anything. There is no need to run home. You weren't really a slave, you only thought you were, you were an heir the whole time, so there's no real reason to worry or to act. There's no reason to repent...

I know that this kind of thinking really appeals to us, like some kind of security blanket that feels much more soft and comforting than the idea that we are actually capable of putting ourselves back into slavery. We prefer the idea that it's all about freeing ourselves from self-delusion. Just realize what we've always been, and it's that simple. But the Bible just doesn't teach that. It is because God loves us so much, that He tells us the truth, "You are a slave to your sin, come to Me and be free!"

These verses in ch. 6 seem to touch on many of the things we've been discussing; believers vs. unbelievers, the Spirit vs. the sinful nature, & eternal life vs. destruction:

"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers."

peace, D

john doyle said...

I think sin is overrated as an issue. One could make a case that Paul thought so too. Without Law I would not have known sin; dead to the Law and alive to Christ; etc. Why so eager to disavow universalism and to punish sinners in hellfire forever? I say let Erdman do his exegesis.

Hi Jason -- long time no see, though I have kept up with your intermittent Golden Asseries.

Jason Hesiak said...

DOYLOMANIA!!!! hey man good to see you, too! i was just visiting you and Dejan, who I thought was gone from the blogsphere. Oh contrare, he still up to his old shenanigans, lol. And yes, I am occasionally up to my Asseries, although they now they are typically much less serious than they once were. Hope you are well, good sir. I mean, you sinner. lol. You want to get together and build a bridge!? :P

john doyle said...

Bridge-building is a good thing. Maybe we can try starting on either side and meeting in the middle?

Jason Hesiak said...

Maybe we should diagram it first! :P

And OK as for meeting in the middle - according to The Erdmanian, apparently there are no cliffs to meet in the middle of :) We're already on the same grounds :)

john doyle said...

I just saw this news story, where certain Christian conservatives want to expunge from the gospel Jesus's "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" prayer on the cross. Presumably it shows a liberal bias toward universalism that Jesus himself would not have endorsed.

Cynthia said...

Yet again here is another example of where you see a certain group's dogmatic interpretation of the bible clouding their ability to submit to the full mystery of what the NT speaks of. How much needless energy do people consume in efforts to prove themselves right when Christ himself clearly talks about the reality of hell and forgiveness?

john doyle said...

I agree, Cynthia. Even Jesus's view of hell in the Gospels isn't necessarily what people assume that it is. Many Bible scholars, including some evangelicals, say that when Jesus spoke of hell he was referring not to punishment in the afterlife but to a physical place on earth, a dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem where garbage was burned. A prevalent belief among Jews in Jesus's time, and also among religious Jews today, is that after death God purges away the unholy parts of each soul before sending them on to heaven -- kind of like the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Is it clear that these are wrong interpretations of the Bible? I don't think so.

Cynthia said...

I am aware that when Jesus spoke of hell that it wasn't always in the sense of eternal destruction. I used to take Preterist view endtimes. I think this view is very helpful in illustrating the actual historical events during the 1st century. For me at this point in time however, I believe that the story while having fulfillment in history also has relevance for the future.

While I am not totally familiar with all differences among different sects of Jews, I am familiar enough to know that vast differences on major doctrines did then and do now exist- much like the differences among certain Christian denominations.
I have spent time learning about theology and philosophy (I would say on a more superficial level than you or Jon). These things do interest me. But as I read the Bible, and admittedly I do prefer to read in broad sweeps rather than getting stuck in the minutia, certain themes do stand out -not because I have been preconditioned to see these themes (although you can't fully separate yourself from preconditioning). Themes that are basicly outlined in orthodox Christianity. I do believe that there is a lot of room for discussion and new understanding within this framework. But I don't believe that universalism is clearly portrayed in the whole of the bible nor is it an orthodox view (I know what you are probably thinking, screw orthodox, right?).
What I do believe on the issue of salvation vs damnation ,however, is that God has a unique ability to judge the soul of man so that what appears to be one thing to human eye might very well be judged differently by God. He alone fully knows the individual. As we can be great mysteries to each other, we can also be a great mystery to ourselves. This is not to say that accepting Christ as savior is not the way to the father. It is just saying that we can not always tell what is going on inside of a person. Only God can.

Anyway, I don't pretend to have it all figured out. Just simple thoughts

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

Sorry to be so long in responding to your last comment.

You asked a few questions: But if it becomes taboo to make any mention of wrath or damnation, (and how much of the Bible would we have to throw out then...) then how does a story like the Prodigal Son retain any meaning?

Firstly, my inclination is not to make anything taboo. Let's discuss wrath and damnation, but let's discuss it within the context of the whole text of the New Testament (and the Tanakh (or Old Testament) where the notion of an afterlife is virtually non consequential). Second, there is not mention of wrath and damnation in the prodigal son story. There is no sense that this loving father would ever toss his prodigal into hell because he believed the son offended him. And it seems to be a notion that is very contrary to any experience we have of loving fathers. As such, to introduce damnation and wrath into the prodigal son story seems to be completely foreign to the text....but as always, I am receptive to any interesting and well thought through ideas.

You asked: Did the total and unswerving love of the father in the story mean that the isolation and misery of the son in the pigsty was an illusion?

No. In fact, this isolation and misery is the point of this story and I think the whole gospel: that a broken world needs love, grace, and reconciliation. We are very much in agreement on this point.

You asked: Did it mean that the runaway son hadn't done anything to offend the father, or disgrace himself?

This (to my knowledge) is never mentioned in the text.

You also said: If the cliff/bridge illustration is off because it conjurs too much thought of damnation, then the only alternative is to take a position of there being no dire situation in the first place.

This is a conclusion that I do not draw, nor do I think it is a necessary one. Let's return to the prodigal son. The situation was dire: he was eating with the pigs. But he wasn't separated from the love of God (as you agree). All that was needed was for the son to embrace the father's love.

I don't see how my rejection of the cliff theology puts me in a position to reject that humanity is very very broken. Cliff theology (on my reading) is actually the theology that takes the focus off of the desperate human condition, as I will discuss.

You said: Then there is no chasm, no seperation, (other than maybe one that exists within the mind of the person). This kind of logic tells us the pigsty is actually just as lovely a place as the Father's house. There is no need to leave anything. There is no need to run home. You weren't really a slave, you only thought you were, you were an heir the whole time, so there's no real reason to worry or to act. There's no reason to repent...

The point of the gospel, I believe, is not that we are separated. That's my quarrel with cliff theology. The focus is on human need and the need for love and grace. Cliff theology takes the focus off of the immediate spiritual and psychological human need and suggests that what we really need is a cosmic reconciliation with God.

Let's put the focus back on the human condition and highlight that the solution is for love and grace.

Most folk in desperate situations are well aware that they are living pathetic lives. The point is show and demonstrate the love and grace of Christ.

Daniel,

I think you are drawing some conclusions that are not warranted from my belief. But, if you really think this is the case and want to defend the cliff theology, I would love to hear more of your thoughts. I appreciate your zeal.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John,

I saw that story! Very interesting hermeneutical issues being raised. I blogged a bit about it and I'll probably post tomorrow.

I did post a short tc (textual criticism) reply on facebook to the specific issue of getting rid of "father forgive them."

Here is what I said:

For those who are curious about the "father forgive them for they know not what they do" verse, I took a quick look at my greek text....

The verse (Luke 23:34) was clearly a later insertion into the text. Well, to be more scientifically accurate let me just say that the first manuscripts that show this verse are from the fourth and fifth centuries in the Uncials. It does not show up in the earliest (ergo most reliable???) papyri, the earliest of which are third century (a few perhaps in the second century).

But even though the passage does not show up until a century or two later, there are then many many manuscripts that pick up on it. In other words, if someone inserted it later, obviously everyone else after that thought it was a pretty damned good idea! =)

The Conservapedia chaps, though, would have to have a beef with the early church on this one. This is in no way an invention of liberal professors. (And strictly speaking, just because we do not see it in the early papyri does not mean that it was not in the "original"----no one has ever seen that document!)

In short, if you are a 21st century U.S. political conservative uncomfortable with the concept of forgiving those who wrong you, then you can make a case for trimming your Bible a bit. Personally, I find stuff in the text that strikes me in odd ways, but I tend to prefer taking it as it is. The text was written by human beings, after all. I believe it was "God-breathed" but personally I leave it at that. I'm not looking for a text that is perfect (inerrant, etc.), just one that is truthful, sacred, and faithful.

Cynthia said...

Jon,
This kind of gets back to the original post a bit. I have have been reading through Galatians when a very basic thought occurred to me. Galatians and the majority of the NT is written to those who have already been converted to Christianity via some prior form of evangelical activity. So, to me it would be natural that these letters don't specifically deal with the conversion portion of gospel, but focus on the deep faith part of the gospel. It seems to me that, of Paul's letters, Romans may be the best place to look if you are wanting to define the gospel in a fuller, broader sense for the purpose of evangelism. could it be that a reading of the whole NT is actually needed to try to understand what might have been said in initial preaching of gospel for purpose of converting nonbelievers?

I am not trying to beat a dead horse here. I truly am interested to know your thoughts on this. I value your academic knowledge on the subject.

john doyle said...

My NASB included a footnote on the "Father forgive them" passage, saying that it's not included in some of the earliest manuscripts. Those translators were a pretty conservative bunch, yet they decided on the balance of the evidence that the text should be included. I suspect there wasn't unanimity around the table on this verse. If I were building a biblically-grounded theology, liberal or conservative, I'd probably not put much weight on that passage's presence or absence in the text.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Cindy,

I agree with you on your observations of Galatians. It was written to current believers. The value of it for understanding evangelism, however, is that Paul here is wanting to be clear about what the Gospel is (or is not, as the case may be). So, Galatians can help put our evangelistic methods in check, if in fact we are using models and approaches (such as the cliff theology illustrations) that do not accurately represent Paul's version of the Gospel.

I don't want to be too zealous on the point, I understand that the Gospel must evolve and change with the times, so I have some flexibility here. I just think that not only does cliff theology not represent Paul very well, but I don't see how it does many people much good at all.

More on your point.....one thing that strikes me in reading Paul is that the gospel (whatever that is) is so holistic (as you have mentioned, I believe). That is, the gospel is deliverance for those who do not believe and for those who do believe. Sometimes the gospel takes on different tones, depending on whether a person is "in" or "out." If a person is "out," then for some reason Christians tend to get very preachy and condescending. I don't know that I agree with this approach.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John,

One of my former Hebrew professors was a translator of the NIV. He is very very conservative, in both his theology and politics.

While I haven't actually studied the issue, I would guess that on balance, the translators have probably come from many political perspectives. This is probably especially true with translations like the NIV, where the conservative theological bias (in my opinion) is very evident, due to the fact that the NIV translators take a dymanic equivalents approach and less "literal" or wooden.

daniel hutchinson said...

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the deliverance (soterian) of all who believe

What stands out here is the power for deliverance, not only from a future hell, but from the mess we make of our lives without God.

I think this is difficult for many Christians to convey to non-believers because most of us still rely too much on our self effort and not on the grace of God.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Another difficult thing about grace is that we very rarely associate grace and power together. And it is interesting that Paul does so. Yes, indeed. I think that the power of grace is something that even many Christians have a hard time understanding. But the experience of receiving and giving grace truly does empower, but in the reverse way of how we normally conceive of power.

daniel hutchinson said...

Exactly, Jon. Dunamos power, transformative power.

Another aspect of Jesus ministry and the evangelism of the the early Church was that it was personal. Unlike other rabbis of the time, Jesus did not permit his teachings to be taken down by scribes and published, rather entrusting his disciples with taking the transforming message of grace personally to the rest of the world.

Paul, with his well educated background, was the first to write letters primarily to the gentiles, while Luke was the one to write the book of Acts and one of the gospels, ultimately becoming part of the canon and the first church media drive.

Interestingly, this process made way for the disaster of Constantine's "conversion" (from the Church perspective) and the long period of dark ages subsequently, with little relational sharing of the gospel from which much of the Church has yet to emerge.

So Jon, when you speak of evangelical film, literature, music etc. what I would say is missing is the personal aspect of sharing with a person one-on-one, conversing, speaking to their need and hearts, and it is interesting that although Jesus certainly could have chosen the whole multi-media route in his own ministry he deliberately chose a different approach.

Church still works best based on relationship, and sharing the gospel works best in one-on-one encounters, and no amount of fancy media will change that I expect.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

How absolutely primitive of you! You Luddite!

Just kidding.

=)

You make some really good points about Jesus not having a written record of his teaching or message. Similarly, I believe the Buddha did not write anything down, but left his teachings to his students and disciples. There is something to that. It implies that the message is embedded in the lives of each succeeding generation, each life that follows from the prior life. This might be contrasted to the hyper-biblical approach of many evangelicals and fundamentalists in the twentieth century who believed that the first and most important task was/is to defend a written text. Isn't that an interesting contrast???

Good point, my friend. Good point.