“The Miracle of Christmas” A Hymn for the Feast of the Incarnation

The Adoration of the Shepherds

The Miracle of Christmas
C.M.

He came to earth that winter night
to share our human frame.
A choir of angels took to flight
to glorify his name.

Some shepherds in a field nearby
were summoned to his birth,
And heard the angels raise the cry
of peace upon the earth.

They went to where the babe did lay,
and found a manger bare.
Some sheep and oxen in the hay,
and Mary, Joseph, there.

O mysteries no eye has seen,
no human ear has heard,
That God should come to such a scene,
and we should call him Lord.

The world’s vast empires rise and fall,
great Caesar lost his claim,
But Mary’s babe is all in all,
and Jesus is his name.

© 2001 Richard L. Floyd

Suggested tune: “Winchester Old”

(Photo: “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst)

Preparing for Christmas with a prayer from Karl Barth

Finish

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent my pastor picked this prayer from Karl Barth as part of the prayers of the people for this morning. Barth wrote it in the middle of the last century, but it struck me as eerily contemporary. It helped me sort out some of what I need to do to prepare for Christmas, and so in that spirit, I share it with you:

Lord, our God and Father, give to many, to all, and to us as well, that we may celebrate Christmas like this: that in complete thankfulness, utter humility and then complete joy and confidence we may come to the One whom you have sent, and in whom you yourself have come to us. Clean out the many things in us that now that the hour has come have become impossible for us, can no longer belong to us, may, must, and will fall away from us, by virtue of your Son, our Lord and Savior, entering into our midst and creating order.

Have mercy on all of those who either do not yet or do not fully know you and your kingdom, who perhaps once knew everything and have either forgotten, misunderstood or even denied it! Have mercy on all of humankind, who today are once again especially plagued, threatened and haunted by so much foolishness. Enlighten the thoughts of those in both the East and the West, the South and the North who are in power and who, as appears to be the case, are today in complete confusion and despair. Give the rulers and representatives of the people, the judges, teachers, and bureaucrats, give even the media in our homeland the insight and sobriety that are necessary for their responsible work. Place the right, necessary and helpful words on the lips of those who have to preach during this Christmas Season, and open then also the ears and hearts of those who hear them. Comfort and encourage those who are sick, both in body and spirit, in hospitals, as well as prisoners, and those who are distressed, abandoned or despairing. Help them with what alone can truly help them and all of us: the clarity of your Word and the quiet work of your Holy Spirit.

We thank you that we are permitted to know that we do not pray and will never pray to you in vain. We thank you that you have let your light rise, that it shines in the darkness, and that the darkness will not overcome it. We thank you that you are our God and that we may be called your people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

(Photo: R. L. Floyd, 2015)

“The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth”

Forsyth(Note: This article first appeared in the Andover Newton Review in 1992 (Vol 3, No. 1). It is the fruit of essays I wrote for my tutor the Revd. Donald Norwood during my 1989 sabbatical at Mansfield College, Oxford. I want to thank Professor Max Stackhouse for inviting me to submit it. This is the first time it is available on the Internet. RLF)

Part 1 The Church and Our Redemption

 The British Congregationalist P. T. Forsyth, 1848-1921, is above all a theologian of the cross, and it is this soteriological focus that dominates his understanding of the church. The church was created by the saving work of Christ, and, therefore, for Forsyth, it has no other principle or foundation. Everything in, of and about the church is informed by the work of Christ; questions of polity, ecumenism, church and state, ethics, the ministry, the sacraments, all these are seen through the lens of Christ’s atonement. Since Forsyth’s view of the atonement is profoundly corporate and universal, so too his understanding of the church is corporate and universal. This understanding of a corporate and universal church created by a divine act in the atoning cross of Christ gives Forsyth’s theology a truly catholic and truly evangelical character and accounts for his continued appeal to several branches of the church as a significant ecumenical theologian for our time. Continue reading

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Iona crossA minister friend and mentor of mine, Herb Davis, once told me that every preacher has only one sermon in him, or her. According to Herb, every Sunday the preacher serves up that one sermon in a variety of ways. It may look like a different sermon, but at the heart of it, there’s just the one!

When I was growing up my family always had some sort of a roast at Sunday dinner, which was usually served in the middle of the day after we came home from church. Then the remains of that roast would reappear in various guises throughout the week. For example, let’s say it was a pork roast. The roast might reappear on Monday night in a soup, and on Tuesday night as my Dad’s signature roast pork chop suey and so on. So is that really the way it is? Do the people of God get fed leftovers every Sunday?

I hope not. I think what Herb was saying is that every preacher’s one basic sermon provides the core convictions out of which that preacher delivers the Gospel. And if Herb is right about the one-sermon theory, than I suppose today’s epistle lesson would have to be the text for my one sermon. Let’s hear it again: Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 23-25)

This is what Paul calls the message of the cross. Paul believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that God raised him from the dead. The cross on which Jesus had died became for him the symbol of that Good News of God’s vast unconditional love for all humankind. Paul believed that in Christ’s dying and rising two important new things had occurred. First, there was now a new age of God’ activity, and, secondly, there was now a new community, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Continue reading

Problems Facing the Idea of Substitutionary Atonement

Anselm(On St Anselm of Canterbury’s feast day I thought I would honor him by addressing some of the issues that have troubled people about various “theories” of substitutionary atonement. Anselm himself is often blamed for views he never held. This article is excerpted from an essay which was later included, in an edited form, in my book on atonement, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. Wipf and Stock, 2010}

Even if one accepts that the interpretation of Christ’s death as a substitutionary atonement is thoroughly biblical, there remain any number of problems and objections to understanding it this way, especially if one is putting forth a view that claims for the cross both objective divine activity and universal implications for human salvation. I turn to the following works which lay out some of the criticisms of substitutionary atonement theories:  Vernon White, Atonement and Incarnation: An Essay in Universalism and Particularity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) Gerald O’Collins, The Calvary Christ (London:  SCM Press, 1977), especially Chapter VI, Atonement for All, and Richard Bauckham, “Criticisms of Penal Substitution”(unpublished paper, no date).

A theology that claims that universal reconciliation came about through an historically particular event  or person faces many difficulties from outside as well as from within the Christian faith.  The expanded view of the universe in the Twentieth Century makes the universal claims of the Christ event incredible to many people. Widespread travel and world-wide communications make religious pluralism a fact of modern life and put a human face on the previously abstract “unsaved heathen” (now our neighbors) of former centuries.  In addition, the conceptual difficulties of ideas like atonement and incarnation puts pressure from within theology to abandon its traditional claims. The tendency in much recent theology is to solve these problems and objections by giving ground on both objectivity and universality. These theologies counter the outside pressures facing atonement by proposing that atonement is merely illustrative of rather than constitutive for salvation, and that salvation is particular and limited rather than universal in scope.  White summarizes from Maurice Wiles The Remaking of Christian Doctrine to give a typical example of a theology that has  responded to these pressures:

 (Wiles) proposes that there need be no more to the meaning of the passion of Christ than the following: first, a revelation of the character of God; secondly, an historical phenomenon effective in the transformation of people’s lives.  Thus he has no wish to deny that it concerns only the comparatively small proportion of mankind which has heard of and responded to the preaching of the cross; to claim anything more would be “chasing a will o’the whisp”. (White, p 3)

White himself offers an atonement theory that attempts to preserve objectivity  on God’s part and the universal implications of God’s act by using the language of recreation  rather than retribution. White wants to answer the modern objection to a theology that claims universal implications from a particular event.  He phrases the question he wants to answer thus:  “What is it about any particular act that could constitute possibilities for the effectiveness of every other act the agent untertakes in relation to other agents throughout time and space?” He rightly notes that such a form safeguards both the universality of divine action and the uniqueness of the particular event.  (p 52)  As White’s title implies, it is an incarnational Christology that provides the locus for divine activity with universal human implications. To support his view he points to Paul’s soteriology, expressed in terms such as “one , in “one spirit”, “Christ’s” and “in Christ”, referring to E.P. Sanders recent work on participation in Pauline atonement theory. (p 58)

White draws attention also to C.F.D. Moule’s writings on corporate personality  and to the Patristic idea of recapitulation as articulated by Irenaeus, where Christ is understood to be the representative of the whole human race. (p  `59) White’s soteriology here hangs on his Christology: “It requires that the man Jesus and the eternal God share a common personal identity, as subject of the same incarnational experiences.” He sees that “the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ constitute a particular experience for God which is then offered throughout all time and space with the potential to “save” all peoples. (p 87) The cross then, as here construed,  is primarily an event in God’s “life” and only secondarily an act in history. That lack of historical grounding shows elsewhere in White’s essay, as for example, in the implications of his theory for personal faith and for the church, which seem strangely irrelevant. Since his position needs no human agency (such as the church) to witness to the Christ event, which seems to have accomplished all that is necessary  in eternity, he avoids any charge of religious imperialism in the face of the world religions. To his credit he holds fast to the two elements that one wants in an atonement  doctrine, objectivity and universalism, and tries to deal with the pressures facing atonement from the modern world.

But these more general pressures on theology from the corrosive effects of the “acids of modernity” are not the only  objections faced by an atonement doctrine. There are objections from within theology as well.  There are any number of ways to organize these.  Gerald O’Collins, for example, summarizes these objections in three categories:  (1) God misrepresented,  (2) Christ misrepresented, (3) mankind misrepresented.  Let us look at each in turn: (1)  O’Collins wants to distance himself from atonement views in which God’s character or nature is misrepresented. For example, some articulations of the atonement  can too easily  speak of God as a vindictive punisher. For O’Collins, Christ death on the cross is better understood as retributive suffering freely undertaken for others rather than punishment imposed by God as a substitute for guilty humanity. (2)  Similarly, O’Collins thinks Christ is misrepresented by substitution language which inclines toward the impersonal and lacks the intentionality of the language of “representation.”

Representation implies conscious acceptance by free moral agents on both sides. He also wants to carefully limit the way we talk of sacrifice, avoiding talk of an expiatory sacrifice that propitiates the anger of God and wins forgiveness for humankind. He admits that Paul uses sacrificial language (as in 1 Cor. 5:7;11:25; Romans 3:24f) but  claims that Paul doesn’t make much of it as either an expiatory sacrifice or as a sacrifice that brings a new covenant with God. The reason for this reluctance is because Paul see God as the initiator of the Christ event. It was God who “put forward” his Son to expiate human sins and usher in the “new covenant.” Once we see the crucifixion as an act of God toward mankind, we can hardly turn round and speak of God sacrificing to himself.  Likewise, any stress on Calvary’s consequences “for us” tends to exclude the theme if its consequences “for God” and hence its sacrificial quality.  Paul knows the cross to be an effect of God’s saving will,  not  its cause.  And that belief restrains the apostle’s readiness to proclaim Good Friday as an atoning sacrifice which establishes a new relationship between God and Man.. (O’Collins, p 108) Paul’s understanding of Christ’s role in the crucifixion  includes both obedience to the Father and suffering undertaken for humankind.  In two senses, then, he acted as our representative, becoming obedient unto death (Philippians 2:8) and dying for us (Galatians 3:13). (p 108-109) (3) Finally, O’Collins wants to avoid articulations of the atonement  in which mankind is misrepresented in regard to human involvement.  He asks, “Does belief in atonement (i) fail to produce a sense of commitment and (ii) suggest a world that smells of masochism?” (p 109)  These are in fact opposite problems. In the first, believers in atonement reverently refer to amends made in the past by Christ and become complacent about the world around them, and in the second case, a neurotic preoccupation with self-inflicted suffering is fostered.  This latter is similar to the criticisms of the cross offered by some feminists, that it fosters a victim mentality among those already prone to victimization.  While admitting that atonement theories can go wildly astray, O’Collins concludes that

. . . a healthy atonement theology invites well-founded action and acceptance.  Just as the reconciliation and liberation brought by Christ impels believers to act in genuinely reconciling and liberating ways, so the atonement he made on our behalf should alert us to our responsibility for the good state of the moral order.  (p 109)

While O’Collins’ caveat about the language of substitution is a good one in the light of the many impersonal and mechanical atonement theories that have been proposed, and his highlighting of the language of representation reminds us of important and often neglected dimensions of Christ’s solidarity and identification with us and his freely-chosen way of obedience, I am not persuaded that we can dispense with substitution language altogether. Christ’s death is a death for us and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is substitution. Representation adds some important notes, but it cannot carry the whole melody.

Likewise, O’Collins’ warnings about expiation are helpful in protecting against a notion that Jesus was sacrificed to the Father in some way , yet again I think expiation language is biblical and retains a place in any doctrine of atonement as  long as we keep in view O’Collins’ reminder that God is the initiator and not the vindictive punisher whose anger gets assuaged by the act. I wonder too about O’Collins’ statement, “Paul knows the cross to be an effect of God’s saving will and not its cause.” On one hand, that is right, that the cross can be seen in retrospect to be entirely consistent with God’s nature and character as seen throughout the biblical narrative to that point. On the other hand, to speak of the cross as an “effect” of God’s saving will could be construed to support an illustrative soteriology rather than one in which the cross is understood as constitutive for salvation. Richard Bauckham’s paper outlines the four classical criticisms of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as put forward by Socinus (Fausto Sozzini, 1539-1604), who was criticising the logic of the Reformers. The four criticisms are (1) Satisfaction and forgiveness are incompatible, (2)  Substitution is unjust, (3) Christ’s sufferings are not equivalent to the punishment that sinners deserve, (4) Substitution fosters antinomianism.

Bauckham notes that Socinus makes his criticisms apart from the context of the Reformer’s theologies and that he neglects two significant aspects of the Reformers views of the atonement, (a) that the work of Christ is not the activity of a third party, but rather the divine Son of God become man, who has come into the world to do the Father’s will for human salvation, and (b) that the purpose of the atonement was not merely to save sinners, but to reconcile them to God.  He then discusses each criticism in reverse order. (4)  Substitution ought to lead to antinomianism.

Bauckham notes that this charge ignores (b) above, that the atonement puts sinners into relationship with God, thereby not leaving them unchanged. Such criticisms stem from a moralistic misunderstanding of Christianity. We do not first need to be good, we need first to be in a right relationship with God. (3) Christ’s sufferings are not equivalent to the punishment required.  Bauckham concedes that this charge is unanswerable, that attempts to answer it have failed in the past, and that if anything like penal substitution is to be retained it must be shown that this quantifying of amounts of punishment is unnecessary. (2)  Substitution is unjust. Socinus says that substitution is doubly unjust in that the guilty party goes unpunished, and an innocent party is punished undeservedly. Socinus did not believe in the incarnation, but according to it, it is not that God spares sinners and inflicts their penalty on an innocent third party, but rather in Christ, God himself takes on the suffering instead of inflicting it on sinful humanity. This answers Socinus’ charge about punishing the innocent, but leaves the charge that the guilty go unpunished. Some sort of articulation of Christ’s identification or solidarity with the sinner goes part way to meeting this objection and most atonement theories have elements of this in them, but by the standards of human law courts to which Socinus refers, these motifs of identification cannot be strong enough to fully overcome his criticism.

Bauckham refers to  Wolfhart Pannenburg’s defence of this criticism where he charges Socinus with excessive ethical individualism. Bauckham goes on to illustrate this point by drawing an analogy from human courts of law. We can see in the criminal justice system, for example, how the punishment of an individual in some very real way punishes their family. In some cases this shared suffering, through active sympathy, might even be considered a kind of vicarious suffering of punishment that we could consider to not be unjust. This is outside the competence of the courts, of course, where “each person must bear the penalty he deserves” is the proper ideal for administering justice. But in real life the interdependence of humanity is such that the innocent do as a matter of fact suffer for the crimes of others. Though sometimes we see this as evil and seek to prevent it as far as possible, in other cases we applaud it. The cases in which we applaud it are those of voluntary fellow-suffering in love. We recognise at this point that love goes beyond the ethical individualism in which the courts must largely deal, and that the vicarious suffering of love may and can go beyond the ethical individualism of the courts because it corresponds more fully to the reality of human life and relationships than the justice of the courts is able to do. (p 8) To speak of Christ bearing our punishment is only possible because God in Christ goes beyond the justice of human law courts. Since Socinus’ criticism stays within the analogy of human courts, those theories of atonement that have accepted that framework are most vulnerable to his criticism. But if God’s justice in the cross transcends the justice of human law courts than the criticism is avoided.

Bauckham says that he has hinted at how this happens by his description of what he has called “the voluntary fellow-suffering of love.” “God’s love in Christ enables him to accomplish what, as a judge in a human law court, he could not accomplish.” (p 10)  To do this means going beyond the merely retributive understanding of justice which both Socinus and his opponents shared. (1)  Satisfaction and forgiveness are incompatible. Socinus uses the analogy of a debt, where if the debt is paid, the creditor is obliged to renounce any claim on the debtor. Neither mercy nor forgiveness come into play. Again, Socinus takes no account of the incarnation. Since it is not a third party but God himself who pays the debt, he balances the books, so to speak, by paying himself off, at a cost to himself. For Socinus, God is free to do as he wills in response to human sin: justice and mercy are seen as alternatives. Penal substitutionary theory, however, makes two points against this view of God’s freedom:  (a) God is not free without cost to himself, and (b) The cost is necessary because God does not set aside justice when he exercises mercy; rather he forgives in such a way as to satisfy justice. Justice and mercy are not alternatives, and in the cross, God administers both without contradiction.

To sum up, the problems and objections to a substitutionary atonement theory come from both  the outside world of modernity, and from within the theological circle. The former seem either to be conceptual, such as how the particular can impact the universal, or socio-political, such as the “imperialism ” of universal religious claims or the negative impact of such views on victims or on people’s mental health. These outside pressures need to be addressed in formulating an adequate atonement theory, but, in my view, they are not decicisive and must not be allowed to pre-empt the discussion. The modern theologies that have  responded to these external pressures by giving ground on important features of traditional soteriology are uniformly unsatisfactory  and in the end raise as many questions as they answer.

More  challenging, I think, are the criticisms from within the theological circle.  An attempt to make a credible case for an atonement theory that does justice to both the nuances of the biblical narrative and the experience of real people is difficult at best.  Some of the pitfalls we have reviewed are as follows: views of God which are morally offensive, that see him as a vindictive punisher (or, on the other hand, failing to deal with sin and evil, which we did not mention); views which emphasize retributive justice at the expense of other elements; views which emphasize sacrifice so as to imply that  Christ died to propitiate God’s anger;  views which separate God’s justice from God’s mercy; views that are moralistic or legalistic; views in which substitution language is used mechanically and impersonally, neglecting the intentionality of the cross and the dimensions of Christ’s obedience; views which either emphasize the finished nature of atonement so strongly that they invite human moral complacency, or, conversely, views which develop a morbid preoccupation with self-inflicted suffering.   To read this list is to quickly realize that there are partial truths imbedded within all these various misconceptions and distortions.  The complexity of the biblical materials insures that no one theory will be comprehensive.  But  awareness of the problems prepares us for the important task of asking which elements are profitable for a credible atonement theory and which should be avoided.

Unity in the United Church of Christ: A Theological Reflection

UCC(This year marks the twentieth anniversary of my address to the Executive Council of the United Church of Christ, which I gave in Cleveland , Ohio, on October 17, 1993. I was asked by the Executive Council to reflect theologically with them prior to their meeting. The address that follows is the result of that invitation. This address was also published in Papers from the Initial Meetings of Confessing Christ, November-December 1993.  I reprint it here as given with a few small editorial changes.)

Let me begin my reflections by invoking the motto of the great Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter (1615-1691), which can be translated as:  “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity; in all things charity.”  (He seems to have got it from the German Lutheran theologian Peter Meinerlin). Baxter referred to essentials as “necessary things” and to nonessentials as “doubtful things,” and it seems to me that many of the strains we experience in the UCC are because of the difficulty in distinguishing between what is essential and what is nonessential, what is necessary and what is doubtful, by which Baxter meant what is open for discussion. To make these distinctions in the United Church of Christ will not be easy, but I am convinced that unless we carry out a continuing and wide-ranging debate on what constitutes our essentials, both our unity and diversity will continue to be imperiled. I speak to you as a lover of the church, a local church pastor who has been through the chairs of denominational and ecumenical life.

I worry about the church these days. Any alert church person knows that the church is undergoing profound and far–reaching changes.  The church of tomorrow will not look like the church of today, of that we can be certain. A flurry of books has appeared on the decline of the mainline churches, such as Loren Mead’s The Once and Future Church, Leander Keck’s The Church Confident, and Jackson Carroll and Wade Clark Roof’s Beyond Establishment: Protestant Identity in a Post–Protestant Age, just to name a few of the most recent ones. All describe changes that are taking place, using words like “crisis” and “malaise.” All offer some tentative steps that may help the church to move in fruitful and faithful directions. None can see clearly what the future church will look like.  Mead is convinced that the new church that is being born out of the old mainline will not be seen clearly during our lifetimes and I tend to agree with him. God is doing a new thing, of that we can be sure, but just what it is that God is doing is not so easy to say.

To prepare ourselves and our church for this future requires the debate about which I have spoken, a debate grounded in study and prayer, a debate that clarifies and articulates what it is that constitutes the United Church of Christ, a debate that seeks passionately to discern the essential defining marks of our life about which we need unity; that defines, too, what are the nonessentials that can be left to Christian freedom in a wide-ranging diversity, and how do we recover the charity in all things that  the Apostle Paul said is the greatest gift God gives to those in the body of Christ?   Let me share with you some of the threats to our unity that I see.

Threats to Unity

1.  A Faulty Inclusivity

The first threat to our unity that I want to suggest to you is what I call a faulty inclusivity. I believe that the gospel creates its own diversity, addressing and calling all sorts and conditions of people. But diversity of “races, tongues and nations” or even theological viewpoints is not the same thing as diversity of faith. To paraphrase P. T.  Forsyth, “Diversity is a fruit and not a root.” Our diversity is rooted in the unity we have in Christ, and in that unity let us strive to be as diverse as possible. But in many cases our diversity has been regarded as a creed extended to everyone and everything without adequate account for the essentials that define our community.

The church needs to be both authentically inclusive about some things and carefully exclusive about others, and needs always to pray for wisdom to discern the difference. Listen to what Loren Mead has to say about this:  “At its worst, exclusivity becomes rigid and legalistic, separating the righteous from the unrighteous according to manmade standards . . . But exclusivity is important because it speaks of something more important than these limited boundaries.  Exclusivity states that there must be a place where a decision, a belief, or an action marks the difference between who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ Exclusivity demands that one who identifies with the Christian community stands for something, not for everything. At its best it engages and focuses energy and anchors community life. Inclusivity goes in the other direction. It opens its arms wide to the diversity of the world, inviting the stranger into community without question. At its best it represents hospitality and prevenient grace — acceptance before it is asked or earned.  It points to the acceptance of the unacceptable.  At its worst it degrades the meaning of membership to a ‘laissez faire’ anything goes.”  (Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church, Alban Institute, 1991, p. 48)

Now I would be the first to cry foul if I perceived the UCC to be faced with a crisis of exclusivity: of rigid, arbitrary, and legalistic bars to membership or participation, but that is not our problem. In the culture of the United Church of Christ “exclusive” is considered a bad word, “inclusive” is a good word. A friend of mine who is a UCC pastor and spent some of his formative years within the ranks of conservative evangelicalism says that the word “inclusive” in UCC circles reminds him of nothing so much as the word “inerrant” in evangelical circles. Nobody really defines it, he comments, but we all are supposed to know what it means, and if you aren’t you are in trouble. It’s used as law, not as gospel. Our problem is not in the area of exclusion; our problem is a faulty inclusivity that often fails to distinguish between the authentic need for Christian confession around membership and the desire to be tolerant and nice.

Let me offer a personal anecdote.  A decade ago when I was relatively new to Berkshire County my friend, the local rabbi, made an appointment to see me. He seemed uncharacteristically nervous and it soon became clear why. Two of his congregants had informed him that they were “members” of one of our UCC churches in Southern Berkshire, and that the pastor of that church told them that there was no problem belonging to both the synagogue and the church, because we worship the same God, “and we are open here to people of all religions,” including, I later found out, some who identified themselves as Buddhists, and some who are Hindus. I told the rabbi that I found that interpretation of local church autonomy incomprehensible, and would look into it.

When I mentioned this to a member of the Church and Ministry Committee, I was told that each local church is responsible for forming its own covenants and requirements for membership and that this church was within its rights. I can’t imagine that the founders and framers of the United Church of Christ ever imagined that a local church would or could decide to become a syncretistic religious fellowship across faith boundaries.

When I talk this way about excluding people from membership in our churches who clearly are not practicing Christians, who are honest enough to say they do not confess faith in God and do not consider Christ to be the head of the church, I hear in response that we are not a creedal church. That is true in comparison to the way creeds function in other communions. We do not hold them up like litmus paper to test people’s orthodoxy. They are “testimonies and not tests.” Nevertheless, the United Church of Christ is a Christian Church in the classical Christian tradition.  Our constitution says that we honor “the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian Church.” We are a church, not a sect, and though we provide space and freedom for a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives we do not make it up as we go along. Essentials such as the Trinity, the headship of Christ over the church, the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the authority of the Bible, just to name a few, are not optional items to be embraced or discarded at our whim. They belong to the whole Christian church of which we are a part. Members join our congregations by profession of faith and that faith has content. Which leads me to my second threat to our unity.

2.  Amnesia about the Church’s Traditions

We are forgetting our heritage. Leander Keck says the mainline churches are like people who inherit a grand estate, but instead of moving in and inhabiting it they have camped out in the backyard, “because they neither knew nor cared how to live in the house.”  (Leander Keck, The Church Triumphant, p. 16) We live in an ahistorical culture where memories are short and tradition is not valued, and, unfortunately, the church is not exempt from that amnesia. But those who lose touch with the living theological heritage we share are condemned to be constantly reinventing the wheel. Now there is a kind of traditionalism that resists all adaptation and change and elevates tradition to the place that only scripture should occupy. This is not what I am talking about. Rather, I refer to an authentic appreciation for the rich tradition that is a treasure bequeathed to us from the past. The church historian Jaroslav Pelikan offers us this epigram;  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead:  traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, p. 65)  Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the British politician and writer, called the social contract a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”  That is what tradition is in the church, the place where the communion of saints get their say.  As Chesterton put it, “Tradition is only democracy extended though time.”  (G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), Orthodoxy, 1908)

We will always need to find ways to tolerate those in the church that like to color outside the lines; Jesus and the prophets did no less. But let us have lines, even if we have to struggle about where they need to be drawn. Let us have lines, not as boundaries that exclude so much as plumb lines that give a true measure. There can be no pristine orthodoxy. Even the so-called Vincentian canon, the notion of orthodoxy defined as that which has been believed always and everywhere, is a fiction, and none of the doctrines of the church quite measure up to it. Doctrine develops, orthodoxy gets redefined. John Henry Newman said that “Authentic orthodoxy has to change in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be mature is to have changed often.”  (John Henry Newman, Essay on Development, quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Melody of Theology.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 55)

So when I speak of orthodoxy I do not mean a rigid, unchanging set of dogmas, but rather that collection of articulations and expressions that allow the church to give God “right praise” which is what orthodoxy means. This includes knowing whom it is that we are praising.  I am arguing for what Hans Frei called “a generous orthodoxy.”  “Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing,” he said, “but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing.” Such orthodoxy’s lines are never fixed or rigid, and must always be redefined. It is the responsibility, even the duty, of the church to do this, as the preamble to our constitution exhorts:  “[The United Church of Christ] affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” But it is not just any faith that we must make our own, it is this faith, previously defined as the “faith of the historic church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers.” So the historic faith in its basic contours must be made our own, not something new of our own making. And when what is essential gets redefined by each generation, the ecumenical church must get its vote across space, and the communion of saints must get its vote across time. So deciding what is essential for the church’s life must not be left to the whim of every local church and pastor or judicatory on an ad hoc basis.

In this regard, I am dismayed by reports of local pastors using ad hoc baptismal formulas in their baptismal liturgies in the name of inclusive language. This is putting enormous strains on our unity both within the United Church of Christ and ecumenically. I have represented The Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ on the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity for nearly a decade. Over that time I have had to defend us against the questioning of some of my ecumenical brothers and sisters about whether we are a bit loose and free with some things on which we thought we had agreement, such as baptism by water in the “name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In the past, when somebody asked me about irregular baptisms in UCC congregations, I always explained the nature of our covenantal model of ecclesiology and indicated the traditional formula as it appears in the Book of Worship. At the commission’s annual meeting last year we were told about a neighboring state where a common ecumenical baptismal certificate had been created as a tangible expression of Christian unity. This had been signed by judicatory leaders representing Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and every mainline denomination except the United Church of Christ.  The fact of a conference embracing such a policy makes my previous defense seem disingenuous. It takes little imagination to foresee the ecumenical implication of such a move.

The United Church of Christ is struggling mightily and at every level over the issue of language, as you all know from following the debate that rages around the New Century Hymnal. But it is not simply a matter of a correct or an incorrect approach to this vexing subject.  Professor Gabriel Fackre has identified at least nine discrete positions in relation to inclusive language. This taxonomy of the issue may well help us to sort out its complexity and come to wise solutions. One wise elder suggests that the Hymnal will only be successful if everyone is a little offended by it. But can we ever get it just right? Leander Keck suggests what is behind the call for flawless words is “a technological view of language.” He writes, “What makes this view of language so attractive during the eclipse of God and the entropy of religious vitality of the mainline churches is the implication that proper (i.e., “politically correct”) manipulation of metaphors can bring God back and vivify proper religious experience. Indeed, wherever the God-Reality has been collapsed into our language for God, one can scarcely avoid thinking that changing God-language changes God too, making us the creators and shapers of God instead of acknowledging that it is we who are the created and the shaped.” (Keck, p. 54-55)

A related form of amnesia that threatens our unity and the integrity of our mission is our forgetfulness of the language of Zion, the biblical and theological thought-world that is or should be the church’s proper primary language. I have been noticing for some time now how therapeutic, managerial and political language dominates the church’s discourse. Where once the church spoke of sin and grace, covenant and promise, holiness and righteousness, now we are more likely to hear other tongues. Therapeutic language speaks of co-dependence and dysfunction; managerial language speaks of goals and objectives and accountability; political language speaks of victimization and oppression. These are helpful perspectives to be sure, and the church has always adopted and even baptized the language of the culture around it, but always in the past as second languages.  I am struck by how much these foreign tongues completely dominate churchly discourse. Like second-generation exiles we have forgotten our native tongue and no longer know how to speak to one another in it. And since we no longer speak it in the home and less and less in church it is highly unlikely that our children will learn it, except a few nostalgic phrases the way many second generation immigrant families hold on to scraps of language they learned from grandma. Which leads me to my next point.

3.  The Failure of Transmission

Related to historical amnesia is our failure to transmit the faith to the next generation. The reasons for this are complex and far beyond our control. The network of support structures that not so long ago supported Protestant America are, for better or worse, gone.  The culture will not make people Christian, and in a church as heavily identified with culture as the UCC is, the intentional transmission of the faith will be all the more critical as the culture changes and becomes more secular.

I am currently involved in a doctoral project entitled “Christian Literacy:  Remedial Catechesis for Adults” in which I have designed an eight-week adult curriculum entitled A Course in Basic Christianity. There are 29 participants from my local church in the program, which is in its fourth week. Already we have learned some interesting things. This sample of people has few birthright members of the UCC or its predecessor bodies. The majority learned the faith elsewhere. Most have more understanding of the basic contours of the Christian faith than they thought, but they have had little experience of thinking and speaking theologically. They find, however, when they do it is empowering and exciting. They are relearning a forgotten language that once they knew. This was truer for the older members than the younger ones, however.

In the late nineteenth century Horace Bushnell wrote Christian Nurture and challenged the prevailing conversion model of his day. But Christian nurture then had the support of the family, the school and the culture as well as the church. That synthesis is over, and Christian nurture is now a failure everywhere. The Puritans worried about an unregenerate clergy. We should worry about an unnurtured clergy and laity, and muster everything in our power at every level to educate and nurture our people in the basics of the faith.

Likewise we need a renewed emphasis on evangelism. We are doing this in my congregation, having participated for three years with the Evangelism Institutes sponsored by the Board of Homeland Ministries. Transmission of the faith is never merely done by Christian education but also by invitational evangelism. But of course, it is not opinions that one feels compelled to evangelize about, it is good news; if you regard what you believe as a preference rather than the truth, evangelism will wither, as it so often has and does in our churches. Which leads me to my next threat to our unity.

4.  The Loss of Truth as Criterion

Another threat to unity is the increasingly accepted belief that there cannot be any such thing as truth, only personal preference.  “You like chocolate, I like vanilla. You like Hinduism, I like Christianity.” This is not what religious tolerance once meant, but as it is increasingly getting to be understood, tolerance is becoming a subtle faith of its own that believes that all religious claims are private and relative. This especially undermines Christian faith, which is not a philosophical system at all, but rather a claim about God acting in history. Christian faith is, as Leslie Newbigin once said, “Primarily news and only secondarily views.”  (A Faith for this One World.)

This ideology of pluralism states that all opinions are equally valid, and in doing so relativizes all religious truth claims. Many of the baby boomers who are joining our churches do not believe the Christian faith is true over other faiths, they merely have a preference for it, out of historical nostalgia or familiarity.  In his new book, A Generation of Seekers, sociologist Wade Clark Roof finds that baby boomers are generally inclined to like choice, tolerance of different lifestyles, mixing religion and psychology, and doing what works for them. Roof calls this religious consumerism and individualism “transformed narcissism,” and he suggests that it is what much of what America’s religious future will look like. The genuine openness (as well as the faulty inclusivity) of the UCC is very attractive to some of these people. That is the good news. The bad news is that their loyalty to denominations is very low, they pick and choose only the parts of the faith of the church that meets their needs, they are notoriously lousy givers, and if they feel moved to leave for a better deal or just stop being interested they will drop out without a thought. Every pastor knows this crowd. According to Roof, for the boomers tolerance is equated not with respect across religious lines so much as the belief that religion is an individual enterprise and one cannot talk of truth but only of preference. In an increasingly pluralistic society this attitude is highest among the best educated, those who make up one of our core constituencies. How we deal with the question of truth in a pluralistic world then becomes a pressing question for us, and has many implications for our unity and diversity.

To my mind the most eloquent of the recent Christian thinkers on this question is Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a British theologian who was for forty years a missionary in India.  Newbigin makes a convincing case that the learned spokesmen and spokeswomen of contemporary Christianity who argue against making exclusive claims of truth on behalf of the gospel are in fact not making Christianity more available to their contemporaries, as they often argue, but are embracing an alternative view of history, an alternative faith actually, and in so doing are selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.

To judge the gospel by the prevailing worldview is to betray it, for the gospel itself is a view of history that calls into question every other way at looking at human history and destiny. To take but one example of how this works let us look at the interpretation of a biblical text. According to modern views a text is best understood from some outside perspective, an Archimedean point from which the observer can make sense of it. From this point of view we examine the text but the text doesn’t examine us.

Newbigin uses the now well-known example of Karl Barth “as he sat under his apple tree in Safenwil, when he discovered to his astonishment that the Apostle Paul was not only addressing his contemporaries in Rome but was actually addressing Karl Barth, and an answer was required.”  (Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, p. 98)

Newbigin might say that we have tried to understand the gospel from the point of view of the world, when in fact the world must be understood from the point of view of the gospel. He in no way rules out dialogue and discussion with other faiths and points of view, but admonishes us as Christians to be clear that we have a position that makes claims for itself, which cannot be denied by deciding in advance that all views are equally valid. That is of course just what the ideology of pluralism asks of those who come to the discussion.

One of the dogmas of the ideology of pluralism is the refusal to even consider the question of truth; even some Christians are now asking that truth questions be put aside for the sake of some elusive unity.  Newbigin wants to claim that the Christian religion is the truth, not a truth, one among many. This of course flies in the face of modernity, challenging perhaps its most widely held dogma, that in “private” matters like religion there can be no truth.

Newbigin argues for a view of the Bible as universal history, not as merely a sectarian story for a peculiar people, but the story for all people.  He supports this claim by arguing for Israel and the church to be seen in terms of election to fulfill God’s intention for all humanity, and, finally, for Jesus Christ to be understood as the clue to history. In spelling this out he articulates an interpretation of history that does justice to the biblical narrative.

Jesus Christ, “the clue to history,” is the clue as well to the church’s mission.  Since we need not be ashamed of the particularity of God’s way with the world, we can abandon the reductionism that tries to distill Jesus’ ethics out of the particularity of Jesus’ person. With the coming of Jesus the kingdom of God can no longer be understood as a formal concept “into which we are free to pour our own content in accordance with the spirit of the age.  The kingdom of God now has a name and a face: the name and the face of Jesus. When we pray, ‘Your kingdom come,’ we are praying, or ought to be praying, as the early church did, ‘Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus.’ The fact that liberal Protestantism separated these two, was willing to talk about the coming of the kingdom but not about the coming of Jesus, is a sign of betrayal.”  (Newbigin, p. 134)

Newbigin decries the conflict between those who see the purpose of the church as the preaching of the gospel of salvation and those who see it as the doing of God’s will of righteousness and peace in this world. He says, and I agree, that this conflict is profoundly weakening the church’s witness. He suggests both parties would benefit from renewed focus on the new being in Christ, the “prior reality, the givenness, the ontological priority of the new reality which the work of Christ has brought into being.” (Newbigin, p. 136)

5.  Loss of Charity

The final threat to our unity is not about substance, but about style. I will call it the loss of charity, which is the Christian term, although in secular discourse it is often called loss of civility. Christians are admonished “to tell the truth in love,” but in the current climate of the church it gets harder and harder to do that. By charity I do not mean denying or glossing over differences. It should be sufficiently clear to you by now that I have strong opinions and I am willing to share them. I expect that others will do likewise, and let the opinions stand on their own. But that is getting less and less possible in the church. The insight that all politics are personal has made all discussions personal. Attacks are frequently made ad hominem.

Loren Mead names this in The Once and Future Church, “Much of the bitter anger in the theological and political conflicts in our denominations comes from the depths of persons who have a sense of loss of the church they loved. The conflicts may be about substantial concerns, but often the anger that surrounds them comes from those feelings of loss. I see this anger in bitter debates leading to the firing of some pastors. I see it in the way clergy scapegoat their executives or denomination. I see it in the way clergy talk about their lay people and the way lay people talk about clergy. I see it in the way people at all levels engage in civil wars or try to purge one another for one reason or another. I do not deny the fact that there is often truth behind many of the angers, but our age of change and the loss of the familiar puts a bitter edge to the anger, often violating the spirit of community.” He concludes, “Building a church for the future will take all the sense of community we can get.”  (Mead, p. 62-63)

It‘s a hard time. Angry and bitter words are spoken, and they hurt. People are more and more pigeonholed into groups and positions. I find time with my clergy colleagues to be less and less a time of support and solidarity and more and more a time of nervous defensiveness.

I know you as members of the Executive Council have been the targets of hard and hurtful accusations. The conflict with the Biblical Witness Fellowship was hard to understand from the sidelines. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, but I think I understand their sense of loss that things they hold sacred are not valued by many in the United Church of Christ. At least in the circles I move they have little or no significance or impact. Nevertheless, I have frequently heard very uncharitable things said about them that would be completely beyond the pale if said about any other group in the United Church of Christ, which makes me wonder aloud whether our church’s cherished sensitivity to and concern for marginalized groups can include them. I have also heard and read invitations for them to leave the United Church of Christ if they can’t get with the program. I think it would be most unfortunate for our church if that came to pass.  P.T. Forsyth once said, “The church is not to be sneered at if it refuses to place itself wholly on one side or the other of a mere economic, social, or political question and stake its Lord’s fortunes there.  It is bad for a Church, and it might be fatal, to be only on one side in a civil war.”  (Forsyth, Socialism, the Church and the Poor.  London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1908, p. 33)

Our Unity is in Christ

Which is to say that our unity can never be based on like-mindedness, on some political solidarity or shared cultural life, movement or cause.  No, we are admonished to have the same mind among us that was in Christ Jesus, and it is our relationship to Christ, the head of the church, that we find our unity with each other. It seems to me that our polity is the attempt to order our life by the fact of our unity in Christ. When I was a theological consultant to the UCC sub-committee on ecclesiology I remember Reuben Sheares returning again and again to the point that the parts of the church are in relationship with each other because of the fact that they are in relationship to Christ. The key phrase in the constitution is “in mutual Christian concern and in dedication to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, the one and the many share in common Christian experience and responsibility.” I recall thinking, “My God, he really means that! ” and thinking as well, “What a radical belief that is.” Its implications are crystal clear: unity cannot reside in offices, whether we have bishops or not, nor in liturgies, or in creeds, or in causes, or in polity procedures. That is why both Book of Worship and Manual on the Ministry are more descriptive rather than they are normative.

What it means is that we live our common life out in dizzying freedom, the freedom in which Christ has set us free. And those of you who have been on Church and Ministry Committees and wrestled with vexing decisions in the life of our church know that because of that freedom our polity is a lot like the proverbial little girl with the little curl: “When its good its very very good, but when its bad its horrid.”

So to state the obvious, but often overlooked fact, the United Church of Christ has its unity in Christ. What does that mean?  It means our unity is something God-given that we do not create or make happen. The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ declares: “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and Risen Lord, God has come to us, sharing our common lot.” In Jesus Christ, God has come to us. Our unity is the result of an act of God, and therefore we need always to look to the acts and purposes of God as attested in the scriptures.

This means we must give up modern theology’s inclination to look at the life of Jesus alone, as if we could know him by analyzing his teachings or delving into his personality. To know who Jesus is is to know what he does, and chiefly in his cross where he saved us from sin and death. This is how early Christology developed (see, for example, Marinus de Jonge Christology in Context:  the Earliest Christian Response to Jesus, 1988) and it is still the way Christians come to know Jesus personally, by what he does for us, not by contemplating his nature. As Catherine Mowry LaCugna says, “The mystery of God can be thought of only in terms of the mystery of grace and redemption. We can make true statements about God — particularly when the assertions are about the triune nature of God — only on the basis of the economy, corroborated by God’s self-revelation in Christ and the Spirit. Theological statements are possible not because we have some independent insight into God, or can speak from the standpoint of God, but because God has freely revealed and communicated God’s self, God’s personal existence, God’s infinite mystery. Christians believe that God bestows the fullness of divine life in the person of Jesus Christ, and through the person of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit we are made intimate partakers of the living God.”  (LaCugna, God For Us ,The Trinity and Christian Life.  San Francisco:  Harper & Collins, 1991, pp 2,3) To know Jesus is to know him as Christ crucified, as Christ within the self-revelation of the triune God. The act of God in the cross of Jesus and the raising of Jesus, the Christ-event, disclosed Jesus’ identity within the activity of God, so that the church’s subsequent reflection and articulation of the person of Christ arise from that event.

We see this throughout the New Testament. So C. H. Dodd writes, “The great thinkers of the New Testament period, while they worked out bold, even daring ways of restating the Gospel, were so possessed by its fundamental convictions that their restatements are true to its first intention. Under all variations of form, they continued to affirm that in the events out of which the Christian Church arose there was a conclusive act of God . . . ” (C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, 1936, p. 185)

The same is true for the theological discussions of the early centuries. So, for example, the Christological and Trinitarian controversies were focused around the vexing question of how the “man of Nazareth” who died on the cross for our salvation and the Eternal God were related. In these debates it is what God does that tells us who God is. For example, St. Athanasius dedicated his career to defending the notion that Christ is God, since Christ is our Savior and it is only God who can save. The doctrine of the Trinity, which is the specifically Christian way of speaking about God, guards this critical Christian truth from being lost or diminished, for it summarizes what it means to participate in the life of God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.

Too much modern theology cares little for the Trinity and has either diminished or let go altogether the central Christian affirmation that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”  (2 Corinthian 5:19)  That act of God in Christ centers on the cross, the lost chord in modern theology. Jesus Christ is our crucified as well as our risen Lord, and, it should go without saying, he couldn’t be the latter without having undergone the former. So with Paul, we preach “Christ and him crucified.” Otherwise, we are in danger of losing what Forsyth once called “the cruciality of the cross” and with it the whole sense of the triune God’s cosmic intervention and continuing activity in the world over which God holds sovereignty and exercises providence.

It is from this loss but a short leap to John Hick’s dubious conclusion about the non-exclusivity of the gospel, as if the gospel, which is about what God has done could abandon its central claim so that it might take its place among the religions. It should come as no surprise to us that someone who edited a book entitled The Myth of God Incarnate should follow it with one titled The Myth of Christian Exclusivity.   If one denies the incarnation then it is quite true that Christianity has nothing unique to say to the world.

But Christian faith does have something unique to say to the world, that God acted in a certain way at a certain time in a particular person: “Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord.” The reality of our unity as the United Church of Christ lies not in discounting or neglecting the particularity of the Christian revelation, but rather in the very act of recognizing and acknowledging it as a gift from God who has acted on our behalf.

But if the gospel is particular in form, it has universal implications. The act of God in Christ was for all the world, for every people in every age.  The Holy God who created heaven and earth and the atoning Christ who saves humankind from sin and death mutually indwell one another along with the Holy Spirit who makes Christ our contemporary.. Could there be a scheme more cosmic than that? Need we to look any further than the activity of the Triune God for our mission toward our fellow humans and within the whole created order?

In Colossians Paul speaks of this cosmic Christ, in whom dwells all the fullness of God. The universality of the gospel lies in its discrete particularity: “God with us” in the human Jesus Christ. So that biblical scholar Martin Dibelius is able to say in his commentary on Colossians, “As Paul confirmed the cosmic significance of the faith in Christ, he maintained the exclusiveness of Christianity and saved the Christian Church from becoming just one mystery religion among others and from being submerged and overcome by syncretism.” (M. Dibelius, Handbuch zum Nuen Testament 12, 1953, p. 39)

Does Christianity then make exclusive claims for itself against the other religions? You bet! Certainly we must be open to dialogue and conversation with other religions, and there are many things we can learn from them, and many common causes we can make with them. But since the gospel is about an act of God that defines both God and humankind, we cannot abandon our central claim, nor can we accept that there might be other gods. Paul tells the Corinthians they can eat meat sacrificed to idols since the idols do not exist,  ” . . . even though there may be so–called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”  (1 Corinthians 8:5,6. NRSV)

Likewise the creeds of the early church insist that there can be but one God and Lord. In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed the church confesses its faith in one Lord Jesus Christ (echoing 1 Corinthians 8:5ff); the Apostle’s Creed uses the Johannine rather than the Pauline formula:  ” . . .his only son our Lord” (echoing John 3:16). Both creeds clearly extend the New Testament faith that there can be but one Lord.

It is a challenge for the church today to remain clear and unapologetic about our faith in Jesus Christ, the one in whom God has acted, as the sufficient revelation of the Holy God, while at the same time remaining tolerant and open to others, and carrying about ourselves a proper Christian humility, befitting those who have been given all things by God through no credit of our own.

Many gods vie for our loyalty today, various cults and sects, New Age spirituality, and the subtle secular God’s of success, power, wealth, war, political ideologies of the right and the left, and other forms of seduction. God has made us worshiping creatures. We will worship someone or something and if it is not the Holy God something else will fill the vacuum.

In the face of these other calls to our allegiance, we are challenged to know Jesus Christ not only as the Lord of history and the savior of the world in whom all the fullness of God dwells, but also as our own personal Lord and Savior. We are challenged by him to take our faith with utmost seriousness. He calls us to decision, to commitment, to conversion, to repentance, to a new way of life with him.

I am convinced that the United Church of Christ from the very outset has been a daring ecclesial experiment in Christian freedom. If we seek our unity elsewhere than in Christ, we have no future together. In Christ, our future is promise.

I would like to end with a prayer by P.T. Forsyth, which some of you may know because it is in the back of the Pilgrim Hymnal.  Let us pray:

A Prayer for the Church

We beseech thee, O Lord, for thy Church throughout the world.  May it grow in the faith of the cross and the power of the resurrection.  May thy spirit minister to it continually the redemption and reconciliation of all things.  Keep it in thy eternal unity, in great humility, in godly fear, and in thine own pure and peaceable wisdom so easy to be entreated.  Make it swift and mighty in the cause of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Cover, establish, and enlighten it, that it may see through all that darkens the time, and move in the shadow of thy wing, with faith, obedience, and sober power.  (P.T. Forsyth, Intercessory Services for Aid in Public Worship.  Manchester, England:  John Heywood, Ltd., 1896, p. 8)

The Cross and Violence: A Rumination

Is the cross of Jesus Christ implicated in the violence of our world? More specifically, does the church’s theology of the cross, expressed in its various views of atonement, contribute to fostering violence?

The English word “atonement” was made up by the pioneering translator, William Tyndale, when he translated the Bible into English. It was retained by the King James Bible translators and has made its way into common usage. It literally means “at-one-ment,” the bringing together of that which was separated. It translates several Hebrew and Greek words that are also often translated as “reconciliation,” depending on the context. And that which was separated and needed to be brought together was twofold, the estrangement of enemies needed to be reconciled, and the estrangement of the holy God with the sinful and broken world. The way the cross functions to effect these reconciliations is the Christian idea of atonement.

But do ideas of the atonement foster violence? It is a question that arises out of my own experience in the church. In 1995 when I was living in St Andrews, Scotland, and working on what would later become my book on the atonement, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross:” Reflections on the Atonement, I wrote an essay on some of the objections to the idea of substitutionary atonement. At the end of the chapter I made note that there were some critics who felt that the cross itself was an emblem of violence, but I didn’t really address this view in depth, because frankly, I thought it was a fringe view without much merit. I still do.

But the view that the cross itself is a cause of violence has been gaining traction in the last decade or so. There have been a spate of books addressing the issue, and in recent years I am hearing ordinands and new ministers repeating these views to the effect that the cross is not, as the church has always claimed, “good news,” but is instead “bad news.”

Let me share a couple of anecdotes. The first was at an ecclesiastical council a few years ago. The candidate told us that she didn’t believe in substitutionary atonement. “Fair enough,” I replied, since there have been some dubious ideas under that banner. “But what do you then make of the death of Christ?” “Christ’s death,” she said, “was the price he paid at the hands of the powerful for his advocacy of an inclusive community.” Admitting that it is at least that, I asked, “Then does the cross have any meaning for salvation?” “No!” she said.

My second anecdote took place in a seminar on the atonement I gave several years ago to United Church of Christ (USA) ministers. During the Q and A time it became clear to me that many of the ministers were uncomfortable with talk of the cross, and some found it offensive. One young man, a bright newly-minted UCC minister said, with some passion, “No good thing came from the cross.”

This rejection of the cross is not new; there have always been critics of the cross as far back as the New Testament. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthian 1:23)

But what is troubling to me is that the attacks on the cross in recent years come from within the church. It comes from seminary professors, and increasingly from pastors. This should concern us, as such teaching and preaching against the cross confuses the faithful and saps the church of the vital nerve center of the faith that is so needed to meet the challenges of our age, including the problem of violence.

That violence has been done in the name of the cross cannot be denied. It isn’t hard to conjure up images of the misuse of the cross as a symbol of violence: the crusaders’ cross on the tunics of invading soldiers in the Middle Ages, the Good Friday pogroms of Eastern Europe and Russia where mobs of Christians would periodically terrorize Jewish neighborhoods, or the burning crosses of  the Ku Klux Klan in the American South.

These and other examples would seem to implicate the cross in the world’s violence, and in racism, anti-Semitism, and imperialism.

But the whole argument against the cross hinges on the important distinction between whether the cross, in and of itself, is a cause of violence, or whether when violence is done in the name of the cross, it is a betrayal of the cross’s true meaning.

I will be arguing for the latter, that where the cross is used to justify or induce violence it is a betrayal of the cross, which is the very center of God’s story of redeeming love to humankind.

Jesus’ crucifixion itself is, of course, a horrific act of violence, but Christian faith, from its early days, has interpreted it as a divine act of reconciliation. My own view, influenced by my St Andrew’s tutor Richard Bauckham, is that the first Christians understood Jesus’ death from the very beginning as an atoning, sacrificial death, and that was expressed in the earliest church’s pre-Markan proclamation that then shaped the written Gospels we have today. This view runs counter to the often-received line that Paul hijacked the faith and created a theology of the cross that was missing from the church’s earliest proclamation.

I argued in my atonement book that ideas of sacrifice and substitution are both biblical and necessary to fully express the radical nature of this divine act of love. Now there are various nuanced and sophisticated discussions about the precise nature of the atonement, and for that I would refer you to my book. My more focused mission when I speak in congregations has been as a witness to the cross in the mainline church, where the crucial center of the Christian story is in danger of being lost.

For we need to keep the whole Christain story in view when we look at any part of it, and I think that is one of the problems that some of the critics of the cross have, in that they focus on the cross, wrenched out of its larger narrative.

So while I am interested in theories of atonement, and want stronger rather than weaker arguments around the “what” of the cross, I want always to view it within the larger Christian story. In that story Jesus Christ, who died on the cross “for us and for all humanity,” must be seen as the One who is “the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow,” and who, as the divine Word, was at the beginning of creation, and will be at the end, on the Day he comes to judge the living and the dead.

But let us be clear that the cross is not just any part of the Christian story, but the very center and climax. And by the cross I mean more than just Golgotha, but, like Paul, I use “the cross” as a kind of theological shorthand to describe the whole saving center of the story as shown in the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In that story I see an act of God, who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, saving us from sin and death. Therefore, my view is that the work of Christ on the cross is constitutive for salvation and not merely illustrative of it. And it is this high view, with its lineage back to St. Anselm, which is particularly under attack from the critics of the cross.

So let me briefly share with you the views of those who consider the cross bad news, then let me to tell you why I think that they are wrong, and finally let me tell you why the word of the cross is good news indeed.

Why some critics of the cross consider it to be “bad news”.

As I have said, I believe that those who do violence in the name of the cross misunderstand and betray it’s true meaning. But I also consider the critics of the cross to misunderstand its true meaning as described in scripture and tradition.

The chief criticism is that the cross is an act of violence against Jesus by God. One of the chief proponents of that view is Professor Dolores Williams of Union Theological Seminary in New York. She has argued that the church should replace the cross with the mustard seed as the primary Christian symbol, because she views the cross as a symbol of violence, especially violence against woman and children.

Mennonite theologian Denny Weaver, another critic of the cross, sums this view up it like this: “The motif of Jesus as the substitute object of punishment, which assumes the principle of retribution, is the particular image that feminists and womanists have found very offensive. It portrays God as the chief exacter of retribution. God punishes — abuses — one of God’s children for the sake of the others. And the Jesus of this motif models passive submission to innocent and unjust suffering for the sake of others.” (Weaver, Violence)

The objection here, so the argument goes, is that Jesus’ obedience to God the Father in accepting the cross demonstrates passivity and submission, and in so doing encourages the acceptance of violence against women by men.

A related charge made by some liberation theologians, such as James Cone, link substitutionary atonement specifically to defenses of slavery and colonial oppression, using ideas of submission, passivity and sacrifice to keep oppressed people in their place.

“Delores Williams calls the Jesus of substitutionary atonement, the “ultimate surrogate figure.” After depicting numerous ways in which black women were forced into a variety of surrogacy roles for white men and women and black men, Williams says that to accept satisfaction or substitutionary atonement and the image of Jesus that it supplies is to validate all the unjust surrogacy to which black women have been and still are submitted. ”

“Such examples show that atonement theology that models innocent, passive suffering does have specific negative impact in the contemporary context.” (Weaver, Violence)

Why the critics are wrong

These views seem to me to say more about the suspicions of the writers than the actual biblical narrative and the atonement theories that are their conceptual representations. After all, if you are looking in the wrong end of the telescope, everything will look small. They are looking at the social consequences of the misuse of Biblical and theological texts, but they are not looking at the texts themselves.

So what I think is needed is a theological interpretation of the cross that takes seriously the complexity of the scriptures. To do that there are some features that are necessary that I find missing or inadequate in the views of the critics of the cross. I have identified 7.

1. Many of the critics do not have a robust view of sin. It was human sin that caused Jesus’ death and Jesus himself “became sin” to save us from sin. That is, he who was sinless died a sinner’s death by the law of his own people, for according to Deuteronomy 21:23 “cursed be the one who hangs from a tree,” a verse Paul quotes in Galatians 3:13.

So it was human sin that killed Jesus, the same sin that we all know in our own lives. Condemned by the twin pillars of the highest civilization of the time, Roman law and Jewish religion, Jesus was crucified by humanity, not at its worst, but at its best.

So the crucifixion wasn’t an aberration, but the kind of event that happens routinely in our fallen sinful world. And this is why the endless debate over who killed Jesus misses the point of the narrative, for when the fingers get pointed, the great Lenten chorale Herzleibster Jesu has it just right, “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”

Lest you think this is a gloomy view let me be quick to say that I believe that God’s grace is greater than our sin, but that is no excuse to pretend that sin is not real or powerful. Many pastors have had to defend the prayer of confession in their liturgy against those who say, “I don’t feel I am a sinner.”

Toward the end of my ministry I started replying to that, “Well, then the Gospel is a solution for a problem you don’t believe you have.” In much the same way, many of the critics of the cross see only evil structures and systems, but they do not see the human sin in all of us that is complicit in them. So God’s act of redeeming love on the cross to save us from sin and death is a solution to a problem they don’t recognize.

2. The critics often conflate violence with evil. A good deal of the world’s violence is evil, and I agree that it would be a better world if we tried non-violent solutions to most problems. I ceased to be a pacifist many years ago as Max will attest, but I still have what I call “a preferential option for the non-violent.”

But as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us, there are times and places when only force will stay the hand of evil against the innocent victim. For example, in 1995 if the 400 armed Dutch UN peacekeepers in the so called “safe zone” at Srebrenica had been authorized to use force against the Serb ethnic cleansers, the genocidal murder of 8000 Bosnian men and boys might well have been prevented. Which reminds us that sometimes even non-violence can be complicit with evil.

3. In a similar vein many of the critics of the cross romanticize non-violence. Denny Weaver, author of The Non-violent Cross, raises non-violence to such an exalted place in his theology that it becomes, in Willis Elliott’s phrase, “Salvation by non-violence.” Here the principle of non-violence is used to judge even God’s behavior, so that the violence of Jesus’ cross rules it out as a loving act of God.

This romanticism of non-violence is utopian. It doesn’t take account of the facts on the ground, which is the power of sin and death. God’s victory doesn’t come cheap. God defeated sin and death on the cross at great cost to himself. The horrific violence of Jesus’ cross reflects the real world we live in. In a utopian world, a letter to The New York Times might have fixed it. But in our world, it took considerably more.

4. The critics don’t take Jesus’ Jewishness seriously enough. When we look at the cross theologically we must keep before us that it is Christ who died for our sins, not just any man, but the Jewish messiah. We need to be reminded that Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but the title given him by his followers, a title previously reserved for the figure of God’s anointed, the messiah.

The pre-Markan proclamation that lies behind the New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why the New Testament has so many echoes from the Old Testament.

Why is Jesus’ cross different? Crucifixions were a commonplace in the ancient Roman world, but the significance of this particular cross was the claim that it was God’s anointed who suffered and died. It was their own traditions that allowed these Jews to understand Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrificial death. For example, one of our earliest passages in the New Testament is 1 Cor. 15: 3ff where Paul rehearses the gospel that had been handed down to him that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.”

And the reason it could be understood thus was because the Hebrew scriptures contained stories such as the binding of Isaac in Gen. 22, the description of a suffering servant in the Servant Psalms in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53, and passages like Psalm 22, which is the source of Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Without this Jewish context the cross is hard to understand properly.

5. The critics don’t take the Trinity seriously. Doctrines are “conceptual redescriptions of the biblical narrative” (Frei).  The doctrine of the Trinity understands the whole Christ event within the inter–dependence of the divine persons. Jesus’ very human experience of being abandoned by the God he called Father, in which he endures the condition of the sinner before God, can be viewed as arising from a Trinitarian act in history, an act to which the Father intentionally sent him and which in obedience Jesus accepted. The cross is, therefore, a Trinitarian act of mutual consent in love between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

This goes a long way to countering the charge that the cross is a symbol of violence, exploitation or even child abuse.  If you start with a big G god and a human Jesus you have a nnitarian god. But Christians do not know such a god without Jesus. And such a unitarian God, one who requires the sacrifice of the human Jesus is problematic, to say the least. But if we understand the obedient death of the Son as in some real sense a loving act in which it is God who dies for us, we move away from these problems.

The critics also say that substitutionary atonement means God is punishing Jesus. P. T. Forsyth made an important distinction here. He says the cross is penal, in that Jesus, though innocent, voluntarily takes on the sentence that we deserve. But though the cross is penal, it is not punishment, since Jesus is innocent. “For what would the Father punish him? And how could the Father punish the Son, with whom he is always well pleased.”? (Forsyth)

6. The critics have too limited a canon. Like Marcion, the second century heretic who made up his own canon, Luke is their favorite Gospel. Marcion had one Gospel and ten letters of Paul, and no Old Testament, since he believed the God of the Old Testament was a different (and not very nice) God.

The modern critics of the cross often share Marcion’s love for Luke, but not for Paul, who (after God the Father) is their chief villain, for Paul’s cross-centered Gospel. We all have favorite Gospels, and I love Luke as much as the next person, but the thickness of the biblical story is partly a result of the richness and complexity of the canon.

7. Finally, the critics have an inadequate eschatology of the cross. Again we must understand the cross within the framework of Second Temple Jewish monotheism, with its energetic eschatological expectations for a future return of God and his messiah.

The God of Israel was expected to act in the future. Second Isaiah, for example, expects a new exodus, which will show decisively God’s identity as creator and ruler of all things. The first Christians, who had experienced this new exodus in Jesus, understood that God was continuing the story, and “a new narrative of God’s acts becomes definitive for his identity.” (Bauckham, p 71.) The God who acted in the Exodus had now acted again in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

When the church included Jesus, a human being, humiliated and exalted, into the identity of God, they were saying something radically new about the identity of God. In the dying and rising of Jesus, God had done a new thing that could only be adequately described in the language of Old Testament eschatology. It was the restoration from exile, the new creation, the healing of the rift between God and Israel and more. The sign that Pilate put over Jesus’ head on the cross read, “King of the Jews.” Who could the king of the Jews be other than the messiah of God? Meant by Pilate as a joke, the church could see the truth of it in light of their new faith that in Jesus Christ God had once again acted decisively as expected.

Why the cross is “good news”

1. The cross is the death of ideology. It provides the critical principle which de–centers our preoccupation with both individual and corporate concerns. It calls into question any ideology that would use the Gospel to further its own ends.

The cross provides the church with a anti-ideological bias that protects the Gospel from being blown about by any number of contemporary cultural winds, or co–opted by any number of alternative faiths, religious and secular. The cross also protects the church from both utopianism and cynicism, because it keeps in view that the resurrected one remains the crucified one.

Likewise, the cross helps the church to understand its life and discipleship in other ways than by the canons of success and power that the world so values. It teaches the church to recognize its true hope in the God who raised the dead from the illusory hopes the world holds out for both individuals in the face of death and for human history in the face of futility.

So the church is able to live in real hope only because the cross has taught it where properly to look for hope. Christian hope lies beyond all human endeavors and accomplishments and beyond all possibilities inherent in the natural world. Christians love the world God made and for which his Son gave his life, and we work and pray to make it more like the kingdom to come. At the same time, we know that our true hope lies only in the God who raised the crucified, who is the God who raises the dead. Such hope transcends both personal death and cosmic futility.

2. The cross shows God’s solidarity with all human suffering including suffering caused by human violence. On the cross Jesus suffers an agonizing death, but perhaps more than his physical suffering was the anguish he experienced by the total abandonment of the One he called Father, which he expresses when he cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46))

In this experience of abandonment Jesus knows solidarity with all human suffering, and if we take his divine nature seriously then God knows this, too, and in some sense experienced it on our behalf, and by doing so redeemed it, which we can only see in Easter hindsight. So not only did Jesus suffer (which is what passion means) but his suffering and death are not incidental to the glorious story of divine atonement and human redemption but quite literally crucial.

Now some of the critics charge that the cross exalts human suffering, and encourages people to accept it. We must admit that suffering, in and of itself, is not redemptive, and so we should be careful not to romanticize suffering. But suffering is such a universal feature of the human condition that surely it must be good news to know that our God understands our suffering, and in Jesus, was himself “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53)

3. The cross models forgiveness. From the cross Jesus prays, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” and in doing so embodies the loving mercy of God.

This radical forgiveness is the only power that can break the cycles of revenge and retribution that fuel so much of our world’s violence. One of the most powerful moments of Christian witness in my lifetime was when Pope John Paul the Second forgave the man who had shot him, Mehmet Ali Agca. The Pope was shot and seriously wounded in 1981. In 1983 he visited his assailant in prison and spoke privately with him for about 20 minutes. He later said, “What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me. I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.”

How ironic it seems to me that the word of the cross is being accused of causing violence, when its message judges and condemns violence

4. The cross is all about God’s love. When we look at the passages in Scripture that speak of God’s love, they more often than not reference the cross as the chief evidence. For example, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Or Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Or Romans 8:31, 32: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

And not just in Scripture, but in our traditions, too, we see a cross-centered understanding of God’s love. So the Heidelberg Catechisms beloved first question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” is answered thus: “That I belong– body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins…so that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation… he also assures me of eternal life….”

Far from being the cause of violence the word of the cross is God’s love at work, and only that love offers healing and wholeness to our broken world.

It is true that the word of the cross is not a word everyone will hear. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:23ff)

(Note: This address was given at the First Congregational Church UCC in Stockbridge, Massachusetts on Palm/Passion Sunday, April 1, 2012. It is essentially a re-working of my paper “The Cross and Violence: Is the Word of the Cross Good News, or is it Bad News?” delivered at the 25th Craigville Theological Colloquy, July 2008. I have shortened it and edited it for a lay audience, eliminating most citations and footnotes. The original can be found here.

(The photo is of the burnt wooden cross at Coventry Cathedral after it was burned by bombing in WWII)

Book Review of “Who Do You Say That I Am?”

Who do you say that I am?”: Christology and Identity in the United Church of Christ, edited by Scott R. Paeth. United Church Press, Cleveland. 2006. Paper. 221 pages.   (This book review is from Joy in the Word, Spring 2008) A few weeks after my ordination back in 1975, I heard Robert Moss, then president of the United Church of Christ, preach a sermon in which he told a humorous anecdote about Kenneth Teegarden, the president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who upon his retirement opened his morning Indianapolis Star to read this headline: “Disciples of Christ seek leader!” And we thought we had an identity crisis in the United Church of Christ! But even though we confess that “Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church” (Preamble to the UCC Constitution) it does not mean we have settled the questions of who Jesus Christ is, and what it means to be the church of which he is the head.

These are the big questions addressed in Who do you say that I am?” Christology and Identity in the United Church of Christ. This is an ambitious undertaking, given the dizzying diversity of views in our church, and the multiplicity of heritages in our history. Lee Barrett, sums up the challenge succinctly when he writes, “At times this variety may seem more like a curse than a blessing, leading to the suspicion that “Jesus Christ” has become nothing more than a blank screen upon which the proudly autonomous individual can project anything that tickles one’s fancy. Frequently, it seems that the Christ who was supposed to be center of the United Church has become the “wax nose” feared by Luther that could be twisted any way one wants, leaving the denomination centerless.” (p.42-43)Or as editor Scott Paeth puts it in his introduction: “Talking about Christology in the United Church of Christ is akin to wrestling an octopus.” (p. 9) He describes the purpose of the book as making a contribution to “the task of interpreting Jesus Christ in the United Church of Christ.” (p. 16)

Read more of this Book Review