Will Marcion win after all?

In his recent book, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Brent Strawn makes a provocative case that American Christians are in imminent danger of losing the Old Testament—and with it much of the substance of Christian faith.


Drawing on a variety of evidence, Strawn argues that we are losing our grip on the OT, making it comparable to a dying language. He bases this assessment on a survey of religious knowledge among Americans, an analysis of the content of sermons, the way the OT is used (or not used) in hymns, and the highly selective use of the OT in the Revised Common Lectionary. He concludes that American Christians’ faith is subsisting on a drastically reduced diet of Old Testament.

Pursuing the linguistic analogy, Strawn looks at how the use of the OT has become “pidginized”—its use reduced to a very basic, almost childlike “vocabulary”—and “creolized”—combined with other non- or sub-biblical thought-and-language systems. In the first category, he places the New Atheists, who often deploy a radically simplistic understanding of the OT in their anti-religious polemics. They latch on to a few verses supposedly demonstrating the barbarism and immorality of the OT and its God, without bothering to understand the Bible in all its complexity. The problem is that many Christians are themselves so devoid of OT knowledge that they can’t muster effective counterarguments.

Strawn sees this “pidginized” understanding of the OT at the root of the church’s recurrent temptation toward the arch-heresy of Marcionism. This is what’s going on, for example, whenever the “mean,” “violent,” “judgmental” God of the OT is contrasted with the “tolerant,” “peaceful,” “forgiving” God of the New Testament/Jesus. The historical Marcion took this to an extreme in seeking to explicitly excise the OT (and large swaths of the NT) from the Christian canon, but neo-Mariconite tendencies are at work whenever (often well meaning) preachers, teachers, liturgists, etc. elide or omit large portions of the OT (especially certain “troubling” passages) from Christian worship, prayer, and education.

Like nature, theology abhors a vacuum, and the void left by the OT is often filled by sub-biblical and sub-Christian discourse. This is what Strawn compares to linguistic creolization—snippets of biblical language are grafted on to another belief-system, resulting in new hybrid that loses much of the biblical substance. The clearest example of this is the prosperity gospel, where quasi-biblical language and concepts are combined with a debased form of American civil religion/capitalist ideology.

Languages can die, and once they do, it’s extremely difficult to resurrect them. As with a dying language, American churches suffer from too few competent “speakers” of the OT, and based on the available evidence they aren’t doing a great job of making new ones. If use of the OT continues to trail off, it may soon be too late to bring it back.

Strawn’s key point of emphasis is that Christianity without the Old Testament front and center isn’t actually Christianity at all, at least not in any sense continuous with the earliest Christians. Many Christians have too long treated the OT as, at best, a kind of preface to the NT. Strawn maintains, on the contrary, that it has its own integrity for preaching, teaching and worship, and–considering that it makes up the vast majority of Christian scripture–that it should have a much more prominent place than it currently does. (To show how this can be done, he highlights Walter Brueggemann as one of the few prominent Christian theologian/preachers who draws primarily on the OT.)

As a course of treatment for this perhaps fatally ill patient, Strawn offers several recommendations: lectionaries that make fuller use of the OT in worship; sermons that preach primarily, if not exclusively, from the OT readings; hymns that reflect a more biblically-based theology, as well as more use of the psalms in corporate worship; and Christian education that teaches people to wrestle with the full scope of scripture.

One may wonder if even these steps would be enough if the problem is as deep and pervasive as Strawn has suggested. Of course, even these actions are unlikely to be taken if church leaders aren’t facing up to the problem. Getting Strawn’s book into as many of their hands as possible would be a good start. The Old Testament may be dying, but we have it on good authority that God is in the resurrection business.


Tom Paine, the Bible and wealth redistribution

I enjoyed this interview with University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson on how workplaces effectively function as “private governments” and often act in oppressive ways toward their employees.

That lead me to this piece by Anderson on Tom Paine as an early theorist of social insurance. In Anderson’s telling, Paine was responding to revolutionary communist tendencies among some thinkers during the French Revolution.

The other Tom of the American (and French) Revolutions

He wanted to save private property and freedom while also solving the problem of poverty–the very problem that led some to embrace extreme, communist-like solutions.

Paine called for an unconditional grant of money to every citizen funded by a tax on inherited wealth. For him, this was not a matter of charity, but of justice. The earth belongs to everyone, so others are owed some recompense when property is appropriated to private ownership. Moreover, the value of any property depends in part on the social context in which it exists.

As Paine says in his essay Agrarian Justice:

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.

What’s striking about Paine’s arguments is that they anticipate later views about the common origin of property, the social construction of property rights and the duties that property owners have to society. (Recall President Obama’s (in)famous “You didn’t build that” line.)

I’d add that, although Paine was a Quaker-turned-Deist, this general viewpoint is consonant with Christian thinking. The earth does not belong to any human being; rather we hold it in trust as a gift of the creator. The Old Testament sets explicit limits on property rights, calling for fields and vineyards to be left fallow for the poor (and animals!) to eat from every seventh year (see Exodus 23). There is no absolute right of private property in the Bible, and any scheme of property rights that leaves some in destitution is unjustifiable and wicked.

With the Fourth of July upon us, remember that Paine is at the very least an honorary founding father, so wealth redistribution turns out to be as American as apple pie. 😉


Is penal substitutionary atonement the “core of Christian faith”?

According to this story, the Southern Baptist Convention just adopted a resolution at its annual meeting that re-affirms the “penal substitutionary” view of Christ’s atonement. This was passed in the face of what were described as efforts to “weaken” the doctrine.

Proponents of PSA (penal substitutionary atonement)–the view that on the cross God was punishing Jesus for the sins of humanity–often treat it as a non-negotiable part of Christian orthodoxy, or even the very essence of the gospel. In the article linked above, Southern Baptists seminary professor Owen Strachan is quoted as saying the following:

“there is no doctrine in Scripture more beautiful than penal substitutionary atonement,” yet at the same time “there may be no doctrine that is more hated.”

“In truth, the biblical precept that the righteous must die for the wicked is the very core of Christian faith,” Strachan said. “Here is the burning heart of divine love: Christ crucified for us.”

By contrast, many other Christians will concede that PSA, properly interpreted, is one legitimate way of understanding the cross, but they insist that it be balanced with other images and motifs from Scripture, such as Christus Victor or moral exemplar.

What strikes me about the pro-PSA side of the argument is that, considering it’s supposed to constitute the essence of the gospel, it actually takes a lot of work to make the case for it from the Bible. Nowhere does Scripture unambiguously say in so many words that God was punishing Jesus on the cross. (And there’s a lot of biblical data that would tell against such an interpretation.) The case for PSA draws primarily on certain passages in Paul, Isaiah, and a few other books, and these passages admit of various interpretations. One has to stretch, to say the least, to find PSA in the gospels and much of the rest of the NT. Even Paul himself draws on a variety of images for understanding what happened on the cross, not all of them obviously consistent with PSA. It seems to me that the death-and-resurrection of Jesus is, for the NT authors, a cosmic event that eludes neat and tidy explanations in the form of any particular theory.

You’d think that if the atonement, understood specifically in a penal, substitutionary sense, really was the “core of Christian faith” it would be presented a bit more unambiguously in the Bible. Given that it isn’t, it seems a sin against Christian liberty to require people to believe in PSA. As the Anglican articles of religion put it,

HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. (Article VI)

It’s a little ironic that a free-church tradition like the SBC would try to impose more restrictions on Christian consciences than the church of Queen Elizabeth.

A brief case for #MedicareforAll

I’ve long believed that people in a wealthy society (such as our own) have a right to health care regardless of their ability to pay. To me, this arises from a Christian conviction (though certainly not an exclusively Christian conviction) that each human being has intrinsic worth as creature made in the image of God. This intrinsic value entails that the market can never be regarded as the ultimate arbiter of value: whether someone deserves an essential good like health care is not determined by their ability to pay for it.

That said, I’ve always been largely agnostic about the best means to achieving universal coverage. I supported the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) as a positive step forward, and in many cases it has been a literal life-saver. But with yesterday’s vote in the House of Representatives we’re one step closer to undoing even the relatively modest accomplishments of the ACA.

The ACA, with its reliance on market mechanisms and private insurance providers, was designed in part to appeal to centrists and conservatives (not to mention to get the insurance industry on board). Nevertheless, Republicans opposed it from inception and have pledged to repeal it pretty much from the moment it passed. In conservative rhetoric it constituted a “government takeover,” planting us squarely on a slippery slope to the dreaded socialism. More basically, despite its technocratic and market-friendly design, the ACA works by redistributing wealth from the rich to the non-rich, opposition to which is a bedrock of American conservatism.

What this shows, to my mind, is that the GOP, at least in its present incarnation, will oppose any effort toward universal coverage that requires taxing the rich to pay for benefits for the non-rich. And given that the whole problem is that many people simply can’t afford insurance, it’s hard to envision a solution that wouldn’t require redistribution. Conservatives sometimes argue that a “free” market in health insurance would solve the problem of cost, but there are well-known problems with treating health care like any other consumer good. Moreover, the “free market” solution is something that doesn’t exist outside of conservative theorizing, while there are plenty of real-world examples of universal coverage being provided by governments or through a mix of public and private solutions. It’s also worth noting that the most successful portion of the ACA, in terms of increasing coverage, has been the expansion of Medicaid eligibility–the most overtly “socialistic” piece of the law.

Given the intransigence of the Republican opposition, there doesn’t seem much point anymore in trying to appease conservatives. Whatever the fate of efforts to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, Democrats and liberals have very little reason not to push for a more ambitious, single-payer-style program to cover everyone in the country. This, of course, was a centerpiece of Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful presidential bid, and it’s been gathering additional support among progressive Democrats in Congress. Whether this can be achieved in one fell swoop is debatable. The most viable approach might be to gradually expand Medicare and Medicaid eligibility, perhaps supplemented by a public health insurance option like the one progressives originally hoped would be part of the ACA. (Hillary Clinton voiced support for bringing back the public option in her ill-fated campaign.) Either way, it seems clear to me that pushing for more direct public provision is the most equitable and sustainable way forward.

This all assumes, of course, that Democrats ever manage to win elections again.

The cross as sacrifice and gift

In chapter two of his small book on the cross and resurrection (see previous post), Rowan Williams turns to the important but controversial motif of sacrifice. He reminds us that “there is no pre-cross Christianity”: that is, as far as we can tell, there was no early Christianity that regarded Jesus only as a charismatic teacher or preacher. “[N]ot only is the first stratum, the base level, of Christianity preoccupied with the cross: it seems to take it for granted that the cross is for something, that it is an event whose effect is liberation given to us from beyond ourselves” (p. 21).

When the New Testament writers (and other early Christians) looked for ways to understand the death of Jesus, they reached, almost instinctively it seems, for the language of sacrifice. “If a first-century Jew had heard the statement that Jesus died ‘for many’, for the forgiveness of sins, his or her first thought would probably have been to connect it with the system of sacrifice: when blood is shed in God’s presence, for the sake of God’s people, for the avoiding of disaster, that is sacrifice” (p. 22). It is sacrifice—moreso than the image of the law court—that provides the controlling metaphor for much of the NT’s reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion.

Williams briefly reviews the multiple forms and purposes of sacrifice in the Old Testament, including peace offerings, guilt sacrifices, the great Day of Atonement where the sins of the whole people are laid on the scapegoat, and the daily offering of the lamb in the Temple sanctuary. There is no one, simple understanding of sacrifice that we can put into a “tidy system,” but

in the middle of it all is one great governing idea: a sacrifice is something given over into the hands of God, most dramatically when it is a life given over with the shedding of blood. That gift of life or blood somehow casts a veil over the sin or sickness or disorder of an individual or of a whole people. (p. 24)

The sacrifice, on this understanding, both turns away God’s anger and establishes (or re-establishes) a covenant between God and God’s people. “The gift is given, and in response God not only covers over sin but promises actively to be there for his people” (p. 25).

Turning to the NT, Williams highlights several key passages that use sacrificial language referring back to the OT. Paul uses language of “propitiation,” as well as the metaphors of the scapegoat and the covenant established in blood, when writing about what God has accomplished in Jesus. The Letter to the Hebrews sees Jesus’ sacrifice as analogous to, but surpassing, the Day of Atonement ritual, while both 1 Peter and Revelation reflect on Jesus as the sacrificial lamb.

This does not, Williams notes, add up to a “precise theory of Christ’s death as a sacrifice,” but we can identify at least three ways it has a sacrificial effect. First, it “breaks the chain between evil actions and consequences”; second, it deals with the failures not just of individuals, but of the people taken collectively; third, it establishes and reinforces the covenant—the “peace treaty” between God and humanity.

Granted that sacrifice is a powerful symbol or metaphor, can we say what it is a metaphor for? After all, Jesus was not literally sacrificed as a ritual victim in a cultic setting. He was executed by the Roman state as a rebel on a desolate hill, far outside the Temple.

To understand this, Williams turns to developments in the OT and intertestamental Jewish thought that seem to move away from a literal understanding of sacrifice and toward a more “spiritual” view. Specifically, “the real heart of sacrifice was obedience . . . to perform the law, to do God’s will, is to give the gift that pleases him most” (pp. 29-30). And it was recognized that fully giving the gift of one’s heart, will, and decisions could lead, under certain circumstances, to death: “obedience to the law could mean death at the hands of a ruthless occupying power.” Such a death, it came to be thought, could “cover over” the sins of others.

It’s a short step from here to understanding Jesus’ life and death as a sacrifice for others:

At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. […]

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed; it’s that kind of world. That’s why the New Testament speaks of the cost of Jesus’ obedience, and of Jesus paying a price on our behalf; he buys us back. (p. 31)

The uniquely Christian twist on this idea, however, is that Jesus is more than a perfectly obedient human being whose self-sacrifice covers the sins of others and restores relationship with God. He is, as the doctrine of the Trinity says, God enfleshed.

The obedience that Jesus offers to his Father is not just that of a very pious Jew: it goes deeper. It’s a loving gift which directly and uninterruptedly and perfectly reflects God’s own loving gift. It’s the Son watching what the Father does and ‘playing it back’ to him. (p. 33)

In other words, sacrifice is here not understood as something humanity offers God to assuage his anger, but as a gift that God himself gives: the loving response of the Son to the Father in the Spirit. Human beings are “caught up in” this loving relationship, enabled by the Spirit to share in the Son’s loving response to the Father.

This is, Williams says, what the often-misunderstood St. Anselm of Canterbury was trying to get at, in part, in his treatise on the Incarnation.

At the heart of [Anselm’s] argument is the idea of giving a gift to God that is worthy of God. What gift could be worthy of God except God’s own love? Jesus, perfectly human, perfectly diving, gives it to God as we cannot because of our ingrained sin. So the life and death of Jesus are the translation into human terms of the eternal truth of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. And when that divine life becomes active and local and immediate in the world, it changes the definition of what human beings are. It interposes between God and human failure, a new face for humanity.

‘Look Father, look on his anointed face, and only look on us as found in him,’ says the great eucharistic hymn. We are able to say to God: ‘Don’t look at our failures. You know, Lord God, that humanity is more than this because you have made it more than this. You know that humanity is more than me and my miserable and wretched and incompetent struggles to be human, because you have given to the world perfect humanity: Jesus’ humanity. And in association with that new human nature I can be at peace with you, my sins forgiven, my injuries healed, a new creation.’ (pp. 34-5)

Williams admits that we can’t quite get a satisfying intellectual grip on this “immense metaphor of sacrifice.” But at its heart it’s saying that “what Jesus does, who Jesus is, is a gift offered to God, offered from the earth, from humanity, and yet offered with divine liberty and divine love. That gift – so costly, so painful in a world of injustice and violence – ‘covers over’ the world’s failure, makes the face of the world new, makes peace” (p. 36).

Thus we are driven beyond the idea that the cross is (just) a revelation or sign of God’s love—it accomplishes something for us that we could never have done for ourselves. We can say that Jesus suffered “for us” or “in our place”–though not primarily in the penal-substitutionary sense favored by some evangelical Protestants. As David B. Hart described it in an article on Anselm, it is a “gift exceeding every debt.”

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose

Comparing America’s patchwork health care system to Europe’s social democratic paradise is a bit of a hackneyed genre at this point, but this op-ed by writer Anu Partanen does a good job of re-framing the rhetoric of “freedom” that Republicans have used as a rationale for reducing government’s role:

The trouble with a free-market approach is that health care is an immensely complicated and expensive industry, in which the individual rarely has much actual market power. It is not like buying a consumer product, where choosing not to buy will not endanger one’s life. It’s also not like buying some other service tailored to individual demands, because for the most part we can’t predict our future health care needs.

The point of universal coverage is to pool risk, for the maximum benefit of the individual when he or she needs care. And the point of having the government manage this complicated service is not to take freedom away from the individual. The point is the opposite: to give people more freedom. Arranging health care is an overwhelming task, and having a specialized entity do the negotiating, regulating and perhaps even much of the providing is just vastly more efficient than forcing everyone to go it alone.

What passes for an American health care system today certainly has not made me feel freer. Having to arrange so many aspects of care myself, while also having to navigate the ever-changing maze of plans, prices and the scarcity of appointments available with good doctors in my network, has thrown me, along with huge numbers of Americans, into a state of constant stress. And I haven’t even been seriously sick or injured yet.

As a United States citizen now, I wish Americans could experience the freedom of knowing that the health care system will always be there for us regardless of our employment status. I wish we were free to assume that our doctors get paid a salary to look after our best interests, not to profit by generating billable tests and procedures. I want the freedom to know that the system will automatically take me and my family in, without my having to battle for care in my moment of weakness and need. That is real freedom.

Conservative and libertarian thought tends to see freedom as a zero-sum game: the more the government does, the less free the citizenry is. But people without the material conditions to exercise meaningful choice lack an essential component of freedom. Accordingly, government action–to alleviate poverty, to provide public goods, to ensure a clean and safe environment, and to provide the framework for a well-functioning economy–can make people more, not less, free.

The cross as a sign of freedom

Here is a divine love that cannot be defeated by violence: we do our worst, and we still fail to put God off. We reject, exclude and murder the one who bears the love of God in his words and work, and that love continues to do exactly what it always did. The Jesus who is dying on the cross is completely consistent with the Jesus we have followed through his ministry, and this consistency shows that we can’t deflect the love that comes through in life and death. So when Pilate and the High Priest — acting on behalf of all of us, it seems — push God in Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing exactly what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing.

So the cross is a sign of the transcendent freedom of the love of God. This is a God whose actions, and whose reactions to us, cannot be dictated by what we do. You can’t trap, trick or force God into behaving against his character. You can do what you like: but God is God. And if he wants to love and forgive, then he’s going to love and forgive whether you like it or not, because he is free. Our lives, in contrast, are regularly dominated by a kind of emotional economics: ‘I give you that; you give me this.’ ‘I give you friendship; you give me friendship.’ ‘You treat me badly, and I’ll treat you badly.’ We’re caught up in cycles of tit-for-tat behaviour. But God is not caught up in any cycle: God is free to be who he decides to be, and we can’t do anything about it.

And that’s the good news: the good news of our powerlessness to change God’s mind. Which is just as well, because God’s mind is focused upon us for mercy and for life. God will always survive our sin, our failure. God is never exhausted by what we do. God is always there, capable of remaking the relationships we break again and again. That’s the sign of the cross, the sign of freedom. (Rowan Williams, The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection, pp. 8-9)

In this book, the former archbishop of Canterbury writes meditatively on the central mystery of the Christian faith. The first part looks at the three classic motifs that have been used to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death — sign, sacrifice and victory. Here, in the spirit of Peter Abelard, Williams writes powerfully of the cross as a revelation (or sign) of God’s inexhaustible love. He’s clear, however, that this isn’t all that Christians have wanted to say about the crucifixion of Jesus. An example of love, no matter how powerful and inspiring, doesn’t seem to capture the sense that our objective situation is different because of the death of Jesus. Hence the motifs of “sacrifice” and “victory,” which he considers in subsequent chapters.

The approach Williams takes in this book is one I’ve long agreed with – the different atonement models are better seen as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Each of them presents to us a particular aspect of a mystery which is ultimately beyond the grasp of any schematic theory.