Christ crucified: Lutheran missiological themes for a post-christian century.
The original sixteenth-century context included: a medieval piety that claimed that salvation or justification was the consequence of God's action and required a human response of humility or obedience; a medieval church that claimed absolute authority in both the areas of the spiritual and the secular; a Roman church that had a vision of the universal or global mission of God and that claimed to speak and act on behalf of that mission; and a Protestant Reformation that included communities that were more radical than the Lutheran response. Surprisingly, we find that a theology molded by this medieval context has the potential for constructing a dynamic foundation for a contemporary vision of the missio Dei.
Salvation is sheer gift
Justification by grace through faith. Paul's proclamation of the saving power of the crucified Christ received by faith (1 Cor 1:17, 23-25; Rom 1:16) became the heart of Luther's theology. (1) Luther rejected the medieval piety that insisted on a required human act of merit in the process of salvation and the Roman Church' spower through papal indulgences to control humanity's eternal destiny. (It must be clearly stated that much of contemporary Roman Catholic theology has rejected this medieval understanding of the church and salvation.) Lutheran theology is formed by a rejection of these claims and in contrast affirms that salvation is totally gift--justification is by grace accepted in faith. This theology directly implies that God loves the world and all sinners; that human life has value, meaning, and purpose; and that human relationships with God are gifts. When grace is accepted in repentance and faith (also gift), justification and the transformation of life become realities. Destructive egocentric li fe is transformed and becomes Christocentric identification with the mission of God. The focus upon God's grace and salvation as gift is at the heart of the New Testament message. The Jesus movement proclaims that in every time and in every place this gospel has the power to transform life. A Lutheran missiology begins and ends with grace and faith. In a post-Christian century it will further explore the depths and breadth of grace in order that the Jesus movement might be transformed by the awesome wonder of the gospel!
The church is a gospel-created and gospel-proclaiming community. Lutheran theology is molded by its radical critique of the medieval Roman Church embodied in a priestly hierarchy, which claimed that the church through the sacraments enabled all of Christendom to participate in eternal salvation. Furthermore, the Roman Church had a vision of the universal mission of God for which the pope was ultimately responsible. This global mission was to be carried out through the office of bishops, mendicant orders, and political institutions, which could be designated by the pope as instruments within the mission of God.
Luther rejected this Roman claim as arrogant and demonic. He argued that the church was not a transnational ordained priestly hierarchy but a congregation (community of saints or people of faith) in which Christ is alive and active through the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. The community designated as church is a gospel-created, gospel-proclaiming people (Augsburg Confession, VII). The whole community is a priesthood responsible for declaring the wonderful acts of God (1 Peter 2). The entire community is responsible for the mission outreach of the church. A remarkable illustration of Luther's understanding of mission is seen in Luther's vision of Christian witness among Muslims or Turks. He views this as a lay ministry of evangelism as Christian and Turks intermingle within the conflicts of war. Christians caught behind enemy lines or imprisoned by the Muslims had the opportunity of witnessing to Christin deeds and also in words. (2)
In their reaction to what they saw as papal arrogance, Luther and early Lutherans said that since the time of the apostles no one person had a mandate for carrying out the universal mission of God. Instead, each bishop and pastor had responsibility for the gospel in their own region. (3) The gospel would gradually encircle the world as Christians would witness through very ordinary means to those with whom they came in contact. For Luther the gospel did not leapfrog around the world but moved out like waves from the center of a circle created by a stone disturbing the water. (4)
Although Luther's image of mission as waves moving out from the center of a circle proved detrimental to understanding the possibilities of global outreach, the analogy has powerful implications for mission within our own communities and societies. With Luther, mission outreach will focus upon lay persons as they in the name of Jesus engage the world of home, work, and society. The church is made up of the priesthood of all believers, and as such lay persons are over 99 percent of that priesthood and spend more than 98 percent of their time outside the gathered community. This often-unrecognized and scattered community, in their homes and at work in their communities and societies, are on the cutting edge of the mission of the church. Our congregations as a gathered priesthood meet for the purpose of being equipped for mission in the world. As the priesthood gathers, persons are healed, equipped, and empowered for their own ministry, which moves into society like leaven in a loaf. Only secondarily is the cor porate and institutional community equipped to participate in that mission as an institution or agency. In the twenty-first century, lay persons will not be passionately involved in the institutional mission of the church until the institutional church is passionately concerned about the ministry in daily life of homemakers, students, teachers, farmers, truck drivers, police officers, factory workers, corporate executives, lawyers, bankers, builders, and nurses.
I served as an ELCA staff person for the first eight years of that institution's life. I consider the greatest mistake of those years to be the almost total neglect in developing an adequate program for affirming and equipping lay persons for their mission in the world. The future will focus upon the role of the lay person in the world, or the church will wither in a death spiral of institutional maintenance. On the other hand, if the future belongs to the priesthood of all believers, the clergy and the gathered community will have opportunity to find their own unique role in the mission of God. (5)
Creation is good and is the arena of God's presence and mission. The Lutheran affirmation of the God-given value of creation and God's creative law of life embedded in all creation and humanity has given the Lutheran tradition an appreciation for that which is good, beautiful, and true in every people, culture, and religious tradition. For example, Luther insisted that the natural law summarized in the Ten Commandments was written not only in Scripture but in the hearts of all humanity. (6) The natural law called all people to their roles and responsibilities. Marks of God's inner law can be found manifest in the dignity of life present among Muslims, Jews, and others outside the communion centered in Christ.
Luther's assertion of the value of creation also came to expression in his insistence that the finite, or creation, has the capacity of holding/embodying the infinite, or God--finitum capax infiniti. This insight, emerging from the Protestant debate between Luther and Zwingli on the Lord's Supper, reveals the very heart of biblical faith. (7) God is not only transcendent creator but is present and active "in, with and under" creation. Creation has God given value, but it is also the realm of the holy. Salvation is not to be sought outside the realm of everyday but is present and engaged within the common and ordinary.
Human activity responding (knowingly or unknowingly) to God and having eternal consequences includes feeding the hungry, giving life-giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and visiting the lonely (Matt 25:35ff.). In responding to "the least" one encounters in, with, and under creation the Holy Representative of God who ultimately judges the nations. Visions, miracles, and powers are possible, but compassionate involvement in the "suffering least" within the flesh and blood of physical existence is the essential dimension of the mission of God.
Luther captured the centrality of the common and secular when he said that all baptized Christians belong to one priesthood and are only distinguished by the role or occupation that they have within the community. A shoemaker, a smith, or a farmer has a God-given occupation as the priest or bishop does. (8) Here and now one is justified, and here and now one is grasped by the infinite and swept into creation and humanity in order that one might participate in the new creation (2 Cor 5:16-20). Here in flesh and blood, stuff and matter, one meets the gracious and calling God and participates in the mission of God by following God's servant, Jesus. It is this biblical, creation-centered perspective that calls the Jesus movement into mission. Luther himself practiced and celebrated that divine secularity as he led monks and nuns out of convents and monasteries into challenging vocations in the world.
Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted. Lutheran tradition has not bound the gospel to particular rites, ceremonies, or institutional forms. According to the Augsburg Confession, Article VII, it is sufficient for the unity of the church to agree on the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Cultural forms that have molded rites, ceremonies, theological symbols, and ecclesiastical structures are adiaphora, nonessential, and may change as the gospel moves from one context to another. In the words of Herbert Butterfield, who is not a Lutheran, "Hold to Christ and for the rest be totally uncommitted." (9) This evangelical freedom enables a Lutheran missiology to enter every new context with freedom and flexibility in order to proclaim and live the gospel in ways that are relevant and meaningful to the new community of faith.
The Lutheran community has not always taken advantage of this freedom but again and again allowed itself to be imprisoned in the cultural and theological forms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Augsburg Confession said that the gospel was to be preached in its purity and the sacraments rightly administered. Orthodoxy identified purity and rightly with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cultural forms. Lutheran orthodoxy became so focused upon "purity" and "rightly" that was imprisoned in the past that it lost sight of the mission of God that had been birthed in a Semitic culture and that, within a generation, thought and spoke theology in Greek. It is essential to recognize that only a church with the capacity for cultural change and adaptability has the potential for being an instrument of the missio Dei.
We preach Christ crucified. In his radical critique of the Roman Church Luther developed a theology of the cross and described himself as a theologian ofthe cross. (10) He emphasized among other elements in this theology that (1) the God of the gospel appears in weakness as the crucified one; (2) in this crucified one, the sinner is grasped by grace and is justified apart from the law or human attempts to justify the self; (3) revelation of the true God is in the crucified one and not in reason, which claims to find God in the splendor of creation and the natural order; (4) good works do not lead to salvation, rather Christians must exercise extreme care to avoid being deceived into self-justification by good works; (5) as Jesus lived in weakness and was subjected to suffering, the Christian should expect the same in life, and suffering is God's way of driving humans to the foot of the cross; (6) Christ, who lives in persons through faith, creates good works within and though them.
In his theology of the cross Luther rightly emphasized that salvation was God's gift through Christ, whose suffering and death made justification and the conquest of death a reality. God's saving power was revealed in seeming weakness as the Son of God hung on a cross. Luther spoke of the hiddenness (seeing the back side) of God since the crucified Son did not appear to manifest the power of God. This focus upon the hiddenness of God and the suffering of the Son has tremendous value in articulating a missiology for the twentyfirst century. It obviously speaks to a world that experiences lostness, suffering, and oppression and the seeming absence/hiddenness of God. However, it is particularly relevant to the world of the West and the U.S.A., which avoids like the plague and denies as much as possible the presence of suffering and evil in life. Within this church the cross of the crucified and the crucified people is often hidden behind dollar signs and happy faces.
Luther's own theology is grounded in his own intense personal religious experience. It concentrates upon the individual sinner in the presence of God. Luther's theology of the cross focused on the sinner' s absolute need for the gift of justification and the sinner's capacity in self-deception to use "good-works" to attempt to justify the self. In developing his thought Luther used the Pauline image of dying to an old self in order that the sinner might be raised as a transformed new, living self of faith (Rom 6:1ff.).
Luther's thought is so centered upon the self that his theology fails to see the theology of the cross as a missiological resource for anything other than other than the preaching of justification. The preaching of justification is a powerful dimension of the theology of the cross; however, it is a much richer resource for missiology than that which is articulated by Luther. The remainder of this essay suggests ways in which a contemporary missiology may tap a broader understanding of a theology of the cross.
Christ crucified for a post-Christian century
A biblical understanding of the cross and the mission of the church is a powerful way in which to attempt to develop a biblical missiology for our time and context. Catholic Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has done precisely that in articulating a mission theology molded by the cross for his context. (11) Interestingly, he writes that he has been accused of being influenced by the Lutheran tradition.
In developing a theology of the cross for the twenty-first-century context, a number of significant factors within the contemporary situation must be addressed.
1. Religious pluralism is a challenge to our understanding of the missio Dei. Within this pluralistic world, the cross has been a symbol of Christianity. Tragically, it has been seen as a symbol of Western and Christian military, political, and economic power. The fact that the flag of the British Empire was marked by a cross reinforced this identification of faith and politics. A missiology of the cross will deconstruct this demonic imperialism of Western Christendom.
2. There is a horrendous global divide between the powerful who possess and the weak who have been dispossessed. This widening gap must be challenged by any Jesus movement particularly because some Lutheran missiologies have understood justice issues as of peripheral concern to the heart of the gospel.
3. There is a dying Christendom identified with Western secularism and contrasted to a global church that encircles the world and is alive, speaking and acting in a thousand new cultural contexts and forms. The dying Christendom of the West will ignore this spiritual awakening at the risk of their own survival.
4. Evil, divisive powers manifest in violent conflicts, racism, and sexism permeate all of life. Participants in the reign of God will identify all evil powers destructive of life in order to challenge them in the name of Christ.
5. The changing role and status of women force the church and society to hear new voices and to rethink old values in order that all human resources might be enlisted in the mission of God.
6. The world of materialism is a spiritual desert, and the Western church is often more fully integrated into that relativistic, materialistic, militaristic desert than into the life-giving kingdom of God.
7. Apostmodern world often has given up speaking of a Reality that is the sacred source or ground of all of life. A theology of the cross has the possibility of pointing to an awesome mystery that, if not trusted, will at least be longed for by every human heart. Only a seemingly hidden, suffering God is a realistic vision for a world marked by pain and absurdity.
A theology of the cross for a "post-Christian century"--what it is not!
First, an authentic theology of the cross is not a glorification of suffering and death, although Christian theology has often done just that. Recently, several feminist theologians have severely criticized these horrendous and distorted understandings of the cross, which they describe as divine child abuse. (12) This refers to atonement theories in which the Father punishes the innocent Son in order that God's honor might be restored or retributive justice might be fulfilled. There is no question that this type of Anselmian theology is prevalent within Christianity and has led to destructive consequences for abused persons and to the legitimization of retaliation within social and political relationships.
However, in contrast to this type of theology, an authentic theology of the cross affirms that life and the transformation of life, not suffering and death, are the ultimate purposes of God. The reign of God is embodied in Jesus as Jesus challenges powers that are destructive of life, heals the sick, cleanses lepers, makes the blind to see and the crippled walk, center-stages the marginalized, empowers the weak, forgives the ostracized and "damned," and creates a reconciled community. In the words of John 10:10, "I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly." The transformation of life is the purpose of God. Within this mission context Lutheran theology will reaffirm a positive theology of creation. The cross is to be placed within God's creative and sustaining work, within humanity's potential, which is rooted in the image of God; within the kingdom of God, which transforms a broken humanity and the story of our cosmos within an eternity of billions of Big-Bang universes.
Second, a theology of the cross is not a doctrine of the atonement, and in particular it is not the reiteration of an Anselmian one. The suffering of the Son is not the propitiation of the wrath of God, although Luther certainly accepts this view. (13) Furthermore, Luther's view that suffering is an expression of God's wrath for the purpose of driving persons to the foot of the cross is to be seen within the ambiguities and complexities of experience. Although suffering may shake one's confidence in oneself and may move people to God, and although destructive actions may lead to self-destruction, suffering and death can not simply or always be identified with the judgment of God. A contemporary theology of the cross must also speak more clearly of the consequences of evil or the demonic as they are embodied within the protagonists and peoples of history. (14)
Third, the theology of the cross is not a doctrine of the atonement. It is much more than that, because it redefines God, Christ, the missio Dei, the church, everything. The theology of the cross is also rooted not in particular biblical passages concerning the saving effects of Jesus death but rather in Jesus' total life, mission, death, and resurrection understood within the prophetic faith of Israel.
A theology of the cross for a "post-Christian century"-what it might be!
1. The cross means dying to private dreams in order to participate in the vision of the kingdom of God. A theology of the cross is grounded in Jesus' prayer that led to his cross: "Not my will but your will be done." The Gospels witness to the reality that Jesus' mission and death were not the private dream of a Jewish carpenter but were rooted in the vision of reality whom Jesus addressed as "Father." If nothing else, Jesus was a person possessed by the reality of God. Jesus believed that he was called by God, empowered by God, and led by God, even if it meant being faithful to a vision that ultimately led to the horror of Golgotha. The central theme of his proclamation was the kingdom of God. From the perspective of Jesus and the early disciples, Jesus surrendered his heart, mind, will, and life to God. The cross meant dying to personal dreams and visions in order to be open to the reign of God.
Paul would use this theme of dying to the old and being raised to the new creation as a way of communicating the gospel within the mystery religions of the Roman Empire. Luther used that Pauline theme to focus on the theme of "personally dying and rising with Christ." Luther's theology of the cross so focused upon this dimension that Luther limited the wider missionary significance of the cross. A theology of the cross for the twenty-first century will use the theme of dying and rising to speak of dying to personal egocentric and corporate dreams in order to participate in God's vision of a new creation. Christian discipleship is dying to an old self with its limited, distorted, destructive visions in order to be conformed to the cruciform mission of the kingdom of God.
2. A theology of the cross announces that God is in solidarity with life, pain, and suffering in the world. The resurrection confirms that the way and word of Jesus, which culminates in the crucifixion, is God's way of being present and active in the world. God's identity is defined not out of a philosophical tradition but in Jesus' living and Jesus' dying.
Resurrection faith trusts that Jesus is fully transparent to the present and living God. If God is identified with Jesus' dying, it means that God has entered into total solidarity with the human family, even into the depths of human pain, suffering, and death. Biblical faith does not limit this compassion (agonizing-with) to a few moments of suffering on the cross but traces the depths of this solidarity from antiquity into the present. God hears the cries of ancient Israel and knows (experiences) their suffering (Exod 3:7-8). God weeps over the desolation of Israel where people, cattle and birds no longer are seen or heard (Jer 9:10). God passionately cares for the population and cattle of Nineveh, graciously desiring their salvation (Jonah). God's compassion sweeps through history. It is embodied in Jesus as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41) and is present wherever suffering and pain are present in life today (Matt 25:31ff.). (15) Suffering often marks that which is destructive of life. However, "suffe ring-with" marks love that is so deep that it is moved by the pain of the other and enters into the suffering of the other for the transformation of life.
Jesus' own suffering and cross participated in the pain-love of God (a phrase used by Asian theologian C. S. Song) that is the Ultimate Reality within a broken, pain-filled cosmic order. (16) This dimension of a theology of the cross must be viewed within a Lutheran theology in which God values life and creation. As noted above, Lutheran theology recognizes the world of flesh and blood as the location of the sacred where salvation as anew creation is birthed. It is significant that a multitude of persons living under conditions of oppression have intuitively been grasped by this dimension of Jesus crucified. Black slaves sang of the one who knew their suffering. The outcasts within Indian society see Jesus' suffering as solidarity with the "crushed ones" or Dalits of India. (17)
God's solidarity with brokenness springs out of passionate concern for the world. A church marked by and enticed by a comfortable life--mountaintop experiences apart from pain-filled valleys--is irrelevant to the missic Dei. An authentic Christianity, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is called to share the suffering of God in the world! (18)
3. The cross means that evil has incredible power in the world. Identifying the mission and death of Jesus with the reign of God means that faith experiences and acknowledges that evil and Satan have incredible power in the world. God's very best is pushed out of life and onto a cross. The past and contemporary history manifests this continuing power of evil as life, the good, the true, and the beautiful are crushed again and again. People of the cross will seek to identify and acknowledge the presence of the creative word of God within all creation and all human cultures/religions. They will also fearlessly name evil in all of its forms (the idols of the nations) and as participants in the reign of God will struggle against the forces of Satan in every context in order that life might be transformed. A contemporary Lutheran theology of the cross will reclaim Luther's own acceptance of demonic reality and humanity's struggle with evil.
Gustaf Aulen's classic theory of the atonement recognizes this divine-demonic clash but fails to place that clash in the middle of history and life. (19) The clash, however, can never be identified with ethnic, political, national, or international clashes within history. It is a conflict far deeper--between the Abba and Spirit of Jesus and the demonic powers that embody less than the depths and breath of the love of God!
4. God is in a messianic struggle against evil. Identifying the mission and death of Jesus with the messianic reign of God declares and manifests that God is in a life-and-death struggle with evil. Jesus was crucified as a direct consequence of his prophetic ministry--his messianic mission against the powers of evil. He challenged the religious and political values and institutions of his era that limited, impoverished, or destroyed life. Jesus combated legalistic religious authorities who relegated sinners and the spiritually marginalized to the realm of eternal destruction and the sick and unclean to societal oblivion. He engaged and challenged the rich and powerful who dominated and manipulated the weak and dispossessed. Jesus' prophetic mission enraged his opponents, and they conspired to destroy him (Mk 3:6). They crushed Jesus by hanging him on a cross.
Jesus was not sent to die; he came to live and to challenge Satan and all his powers. Jesus was crucified in God's struggle for righteousness, truth, and the transformation of life. The resurrection is the sign of hope in the midst of a raging battle that God ultimately will have God's will done. Therefore, we hopefully pray, "Your kingdom come; your will be done!" That prayer leads to conformity with the cruciform mission of God. It leads in every new context to an involvement in the mission of God's struggle for justice, righteousness, and the transformation of life.
The Lutheran theological tradition has often emphasized that Jesus came to die rather than that he was sent to fulfil a mission that culminated in his death. In interpreting Jesus in this way, Christianity has been seen as a faith that offers a means of facing death without the fear of the judgment of God. Lutherans more often than not prepared for death and the afterlife. A missiology for the twenty-first century will prepare the church for its struggle against the life-destroying demonic in this world with the incredible promise that if you lose your life in it you will share the victory of the reign of God (Mk 8:35).
5. God wills to be vulnerable in the world. A theology of the cross asserts that in this struggle against evil God limits Godself to the power of noncoercive, persevering love in bringing forth the new creation. Out of the depths of compassion Jesus cared, spoke, preached, touched, healed, exorcised, raged, and turned over tables. But he did not attempt to lead a violent revolution in order to establish a political kingdom in the midst of the Roman Empire. Rather, his revolution included the power to name evil, confront powers, heal and empower people, and love and weep over enemies even as he was nailed to the cross. This reign of God is solidly and passionately in the world but is not of the world.
Within this present age the Messiah and the Messiah's followers do not seek to coercively impose the will of God upon the earth. One Chinese Communist party member said to me, "You cannot possibly run a country this way." That is absolutely correct. You cannot run a political institution without the use of coercive power. Jesus recognizes that his kingdom is not of this world; it belongs to a different order of being. Instead of building a new world though law and order, God through the Spirit creates a servant people who permeate the world and undermine the values and institutions that destroy life in order that a new creation might appear. It is this cruciform missio Dei alone that can be identified with Jesus' vision of the coming reign of God. The reign of God will not be politically institutionalized but, like leaven and light, will be loose in the world. This messianic reign will always be vulnerable to the coercive forces of evil. Nevertheless, it will cross cultural, political, and ethnic lines. The new creation of authentic community and relationships can never be imposed coercively but must be drawn out of human beings by the Spirit. The Spirit creates new relationships which embrace even the enemy.
For three hundred years, the Jesus movement lived out this nonviolent, vulnerable mission of Jesus. This faith tradition is courageously lived out today in the pacifist Christian communities who continue to literally follow Jesus. Early Christianity was transformed when the Emperor made a previously persecuted faith the established religion of the Roman Empire. Suddenly, bishops called upon their pacifist communities to take up swords and defend the Empire. (20) How could the followers of Jesus live in this new world? Lutheran theology has had a unique answer to that question.
Two reigns of God. God intends to bring forth a totally different order of being, a new age, "a new creation," and a new way of relating. However, from a Lutheran perspective this does not exclude God from continuing to preserve the present age or "the old creation." In order to keep the present age from self-destructing while a new age is being born, God may and does use coercive power. People of faith are swept into this life and find themselves called to be participants in the struggle to maintain the present age from self-destruction. They make laws and enforce them in order to preserve life. Luther calls this the kingdom of God's left hand. The followers of Jesus also experience being called as participants into God's messianic mission to bring forth a new creation through a vulnerable mission of love. That mission is made concrete in words of forgiveness, challenge, and hope, and in noncoercive actions of compassion and justice. Luther called this God's kingdom of the right hand. In commenting on this twofold kingdom, Luther interestingly said that, in participating in the right hand of God's work, I am called in my personal life to turn the other cheek; but when called to participate in the work of the left hand of God, I am not called to turn my neighbor's cheek.
For Luther, God is ambidextrous. God is motivated by love in acting with both right hand and left hands. (21) With God's left hand, God was struggling with coercive force against powers that threatened life itself. With God's right hand God was in Christ bringing into reality a new order of being. The gospel is preached and with acts of love and compassion brings forth a new creation.
The cruciform misslo Dei for the twenty-first century will embody the vulnerability of God incarnate in Jesus. Particularly in relating to people of other faiths, the body of Christ will denounce every manifestation of imperialistic Christendom and with Jesus will be a serving and reconciling community. In the words of an African proverb, the Jesus movement will walk softly into a distant place.
There will continue to be pacifist Christians who will identify with the nonviolent agenda of Jesus in every situation. There will also be others who, like Luther, believe they are called to participate in an ambiguous world within two reigns of God. However, the cruciform missio Dei will reject every effort to identify the reign of God with an ethnic, nationalistic, political, or ideological agenda. No one can implement in the name of Christ a political or nationalistic program, because no one can use the name of the Abba of Jesus to speak for a fraction of the human race. Nor can anyone in the name of the nonviolent Christ fight a war, even against terrorists (Mk 10:42 if.).
Theodicies and the atonement. A theology of the cross implies that, even though righteousness and compassion are often crushed within history, the reign of God is never snuffed out or eliminated. The reign of God is always present and hidden and always has the potential of reemerging to struggle with the powers of darkness. The resurrection is God's promise that the reign of God always comes back and ultimately will prevail.
This means that in the world of theodicies faith trusts that there is life on the other side of death. Faith may not have rationales for defeats, suffering, and death. However, faith hopes and within tears rejoices that since Christ lives, we too do and will live.
This also means that within atonement theories God will never fail to bear responsibility for the divine-human relationship; God will refuse to let us go! The resurrection is the promise that God, even though God's chosen one has been despised and rejected, has not deserted the planet or humanity but persistently comes back. In love God has chosen to absorb into God's own being all of the hate and rebellion of the human family. This divine bearing of sins, divine responsibility-taking, makes forgiveness, justification, and life possible. John the Baptizer points to Jesus as the incarnation of this reality and says, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." God whispers from eternity, "You may not wish my blessing, but I will go through hell to give it to you." God will never let us go! This understanding of the atonement asserts that God is in Christ reconciling the world to Godself (1 Cor 5:18-21). It also sees any atonement theory in which Christ is not transparent to the Abba of Jesus but in some ways transforms the Father's attitude to humanity as contrary to the gospel.
A number of theologians have recently articulated a vision of the atonement in similar images. The Japanese theologian Kitamori speaks of God as grieving over God's children--grieving because even though God's wrath wills to purge his children of sin as they destroy one another, God in love refuses to give them up. Grieving love wills to bear their sinful brokenness and will not let them go. (22) Douglas John Hall describes God's suffering love embracing humans who in freedom choose to walk contrary to the will of God. God refuses to forfeit the relationship distorted by human sin and instead chooses to bear the sin of humanity. (23) Jurgen Moltmann describes the suffering of the Father who wills to send the Son into the world. The Father "gives up/over" the Son to a suffering mission resulting in death because only a vulnerable mission can reconcile humanity without destroying human freedom and therefore humans themselves. Rather than destroy the human community, the Father and Son bear the sins of the world in suffering. (24) In very similar terms Elizabeth Johnson speaks of God's suffering love as the power to resist evil and continue to create anew. (25) The cross testifies to a love that will not let us go. A pain-love that bears humanity's unwillingness to be conformed to the image of God is sheer grace!
This understanding of the atonement has nothing to do with the glorification of suffering or divine child abuse. It has everything to do with compassion that is so powerful and deep that love spontaneously embraces all humanity, bears the rebelliousness of a broken world, and struggles to transform the totality of reality.
6. Expanding the scope of God's grace. It is difficult to fathom why Christian and Lutheran theology have attempted to limit the breadth and cosmic scope of God's suffering love embodied in Jesus crucified. Why would one limit the saving effects of this love to those who have the possibility of hearing a proclamation of Jesus? Is God's life-giving embrace to be limited by the time and place of one's birth? This question is particularly significant today, when our knowledge of the universe is exploding. Soon we will be talking of a multitude of Big-Bang cosmic constructs and the reality of countless havens of intelligent life. How does one speak of God's life-creating and life-transforming power one trillion light years away in a galaxy unknown to our time and space? Is "salvation" within this mystery to be conditioned upon a human mission endeavor traveling at time-warp speeds collapsing time and space? Limiting salvation to those who encounter the Jesus of the Gospels is placing Jesus in a very tiny theologi cal package addressed to a small fraction of the human family within a small corner of the universe. The Abba of Jesus actually comes in a gigantic box inclusive of a multitude of cultures and universes and addressed to a multiplicity of peoples and intelligent life forms. Placing the "finality of Jesus" within the meta-cosmic Abba of Jesus does not minimize the mystery of the incarnation but transposes it into an intercultural and interstellar symphony.
This vision of the mystery of God is already present in the New Testament. The writers of Ephesians and Colossians placed Jesus within this meta-cosmic reality. The God embodied in Jesus was the God unifying the totality of all reality (Ephesians 1, Colossians 1). The God incarnate in Jesus is the Abba who is everywhere and always present and active in the world.
A quick glimpse of the biblical tradition reveals that this universal theme is a basic dimension of the biblical faith. Within the Pentateuch, an unknown king, designated Melchizedek or the king of Righteousness (Genesis 14), blessed Abraham the father of faith; and Jethro, the Priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses, taught the people of Israel organizational skills for the new community (Exodus 18). Within the prophets, Amos saw God as the Lord of all nations calling and guiding all nations of Israel's world (Amos 9:7), and Isaiah saw Cyrus the king of Persia as God's servant (Isa 45:1).
Within the New Testament tradition, Jesus, Paul, and the letter of 1 Peter understood salvation as a dynamic power through which God was universally at work in the world (the whole cosmos). However, God's saving power, which became incarnate in Christ, was not limited to the historical Christian movement. Jesus, like the Old Testament writers, saw God's saving presence outside the community of Abraham's descendants or his own ministry. In Luke 4:24-30 it is reported that Jesus sees God's saving work in a widow from Sidon and a Syrian military officer, an observation that nearly cost him his life. In Luke 10:25-37, he describes a despised Samaritan as the embodiment of compassion even for the enemy. In Luke 18:9-14, he declares a sinner to be justified and forgiven. In Matt 25:31-45, he teaches that multitudes from all nations are pronounced as participants in God's final victory even though they had not been aware of their encounters with the reign of God. It would appear that if one takes Jesus seriously, f aith in the finality of Christ necessarily includes the recognition of God's creative saving work outside of hearing and believing in Jesus Christ!
Paul and his followers, like Jesus, saw God's saving power in Christ universally active. In Rom 2:14-16, Gentiles who know the will of God as it is seared into their conscience may be excused, forgiven, on the day of judgment. In 2 Cor 5:16-24, Eph 1:3-13, and Col 1:15-23, Paul and Pauline theologians see God reconciling the whole of the totality into one unified cosmos in Christ. 1 Peter sees Christ's saving power even in the realm of the dead (3:19).
Early Christians claimed the truth of the creative and saving Logos wherever the good, the true, and the beautiful appeared. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine are striking examples of this universal theme. (26) This theme moved into the dim background for many during the Middle Ages; however, it continued to be present within the Catholic tradition and reemerged at the time of Vatican 11.27 Karl Rahner and Hans Kung have been powerful spokespersons for this vision. Several contemporary Lutheran theologians, including Wolfhart Pannenberg and Carl Bratten, have also reclaimed the universal saving significance of God's power manifest in Christ. Both insist that God is at work throughout the whole of life and history. God's universal transforming work identified in the resurrection of Christ has saving significance for the whole of creation and the whole human family, not just for those who hear and respond to the gospel. (28)
A missiology for the twenty-first century will reaffirm this universal theme as a dimension of the Good News. The finality of Jesus is confessed within God' s universal and saving power, not in contradiction to it. Jesus the Christ reveals and for all times and places defines what is the heart of our pulsating universe, the Abba of Jesus who through the Spirit raised the vulnerable Messiah from the dead. The God of this grace is not bound by the limitations of our knowledge, our faith, our message, or our mission.
(1.) For two examples of this theme see "The Freedom of a Christian (1518)" in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 30-49, or in Luther's Works (LW) 31: 39-58; also" Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans" in LW 35 (Philadelphia: Muhelenberg, 1960), 365-80.
(2.) Ingemar Oberg finds this dimension of mission in Luther's "Heerpredigt wider den Turken" in Dr. Martin Luther's Werke, Weimar Edition (WA), Vol. 30, Part 2, No. 1, pp. 192-94. Oberg's observations are found in a manuscript to be published by Concordia entitled
(3.) "Luther and World Mission: Historical and Systematic Studies with Special Reference to Bible Exposition," translated by Dean M. Apel. Comments appear in an exposition of Psalm 82:4 and is found in LW 13:64-65.
(4.) See "Sermon on Auffahrttage (May 22, 1522)" in Dr. Martin Luther's Werke, Weimar Edition, 10 Band, Dritte Abteilung, p. 140.
(5.) An excellent discussion of this topic is found in Mark Gibbs and T. Ralph Morton, God's Frozen People (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964).
(6.) See WA, Vol. 39. I, p. 454, line 4ff.; also LW 25, exposition on Romans 2:15.
(7.) The phrase finitum capax infiniti does not actually occur in the Marburg Articles or Colloquy but in time became a summary of the Lutheran position. See Paul Tillich, The History of Christian Thought, ed. Carl Braaten (New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1968), 262.
(8.) "To the Christian Nobility," LW 44:13.
(9.) Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (New York: Scribner's, 1950), 146.
(10.) "The Heidelberg Disputation (1518 )" in Lull's collection, pp. 30-49; also in LW 31, 39-5 8.
(11.) "Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical Theological View, Part IV (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 195-271. Sobrino develops themes such as the suffering and death of God, God's solidarity with the oppressed and conflict with evil, and the vulnerability of the Servant and servants of God.
(12.) See Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, "For God So Loved the World," in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, ed. J. C. Brown and Carol R. Bohn (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 1989), 1-30.
(13.) See "A Meditation on Christ's Passion" in Lull's collection, pp. 165-72, particularly 166-67 where Luther speaks of the severe punishment of the dearest Son.
(14.) In particular, Lutheran orthodoxy has had a tendency to minimize the role of evil in speaking of human suffering and to dramatize the role of God's judgment. One might call this the demonization of God within orthodoxy. For another interpretation of this theme see The Scandal of the Crucified World: Perspectives on the Cross and Suffering, ed. Yacob Tesfai (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), particularly chaps. 1 (Tesfai) and 10 (C. S. Song).
(15.) Terrence E. Fretheim has written brilliantly on the theme of the suffering of God in the Old Testament. See The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984). In a recent article Fretheim uses this theme in developing a Christology. See "Christology and the Old Testament," in Who Do You Say I Am? ed. Mark Allen Powell and David Bauer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999), particularly p. 212.
(16.) Choan-Seng Song, Third Eye Theology, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 83-88.
(17.) Arvind P. Nirmal," Doing Theology from a Dalit Perspective," in A Reader in Dalit Theology, ed. A. P. Nirmal (Madras/Gurukul, 1990).
(18.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed., ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Collier Books, Macmillan, 1971), 361.
(19.) Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Types of the Idea of the Atonement (New York: Collier Books, Macmillan, 1969).
(20.) See George Forell's discussion of the Council of Aries (318 A.D.), where Christian soldiers are threatened with excommunication for throwing "down their weapons even in times of peace," in History of Christian Ethics, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1979), 58-60.
(21.) Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966).
(22.) Kato Kitamori, The Theology of the Pain of God (Richmond: John Knox, 1965), 119-21.
(23.) Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis; Augsburg, 1968), 98, 113.
(24.) Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: the Cross of Chris: as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 235-49, particularly 248.
(25.) Elizabeth Johnson, She Who is; The Mystery of God in Feminine Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
(26.) Justin Martyr, Apology 1.46; 11.13; Clement of Alexandria, The Stomata, Book I, chaps. 4 and 5; Augustine, The Retroactions, Book I, chapter 12, section 3.
(27.) Jacquis Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), chaps. 3-5, 84-157.
(28.) See Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Religions from the Perspective of Christian Theology and the Self-Interpretation of Christianity in Relation to Non-Christian Religions," Modern Theology 9:3 (July 1993), 285-97, particularly p. 293. See also Carl Braaten, "The Universal Meaning of Jesus Christ," LCA Partners (December 1980), 13-16.
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|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2003|
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