Preach

 

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There’s a new Gallup poll out on what makes people go to Church, according to Christianity Today, and it’s kind of awesome. The number one reason why folks go to church is to hear sermons about Scripture. 82% of Protestants cited a rigorous exposition of Scripture as what draws them to Church. I say “kind of awesome” because the best answer would be “I go because she is the body of Christ and we love her and want to build her up” but I imagine that answer wasn’t an option on the Gallup poll.

Here’s the money paragraph from the article.

Last year, Ed Stetzer cited several examples of congregations (such as Oklahoma megachurch Life.Church) that shifted toward more rigorous teaching once they noticed interest from the unchurched: “In other words, those for whom sermons were being dumbed down aren’t dumb. They are interested in the truth or else they’d be out golfing.”

I’ve long believed that churches, evangelicals in particular, make things far too easy on folks in the pews by “contextualizing” things in such a way that it’s impossible to distinguish from the wider culture. This survey shows that is a mistake. Here’s to more rigorous teaching and more demanding church going that holds a certain finger to the way culture does things and is her faithful self in serving our Lord.  

Hans Boersma and the Church Fathers on Scripture

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Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church by Hans Boersma  Baker Academic Press 336 pp. March 2017

Several years ago, before the Lord blessed us with ridiculously time consuming and needy children, my wife and I got the chance to visit Italy and see some of the great art of the West. After a very strenuous day of exploring Rome and Vatican City, as we were finishing up our Vatican Museum tour, our guide asked if any of us wanted to walk a bit farther to go to the Papal chambers where Raphael’s School of Athens was painted. It was a bit of a walk though, she said, and so we could skip it if we wanted. All I wanted to do was sit down and eat some gelato, but I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance again and prayed to the good Lord to give my legs one more mile. He did and I saw Raphael’s painting, which, as any lover of the humanities knows, is a real treasure. It’s also a great way to envision Hans Boersma’s thesis in his new book: we have all fallen far too hard for Aristotle as moderns, and to recover a proper biblical hermeneutic, we need to turn back to Plato.

Boersma- Scripture as Real PresnceThough this comparison is somewhat crude, I don’t think it’s too far off. The focus of Raphael’s painting, as you know, is the competing metaphysic between Plato and Aristotle: between Plato’s mysticism—he’s the one on the left pointing up to the mysteries of the heavens— and Aristotle’s embodied realism—Aristotle holds his hand down to the earth embodying his focus on concrete scientia. Like Raphael’s painting, Boersma’s book also revolves around this dualistic metaphysic; he believes that Plato and Aristotle represent the two competing methods of Scriptural interpretation. Scripture as Real Presence is an exercise in patristic exegesis because we need to get back to the way the fathers read Scripture. In short, the fathers read Scripture better than we do because they had the right metaphysics. As pre-moderns, the church fathers were Platonists, combing the Scriptures sacramentally (Boersma’s term), looking for Christ in every sentence and every verse.

As moderns, we have forfeited our deep reading of Scripture for a historical, scientific hermeneutic—a hermeneutic in line with Aristotle’s metaphysic—content to stay on the surface of things, content to squalor in the mud and the bugs—when we could reach to the heavens with Plato. That is the thesis of the book. Let me now fill out—and question—that picture.

Boersma’s book is driven by two main contentions: first, to get us to see that we must have a sacramental metaphysic in order to properly read Scripture. Second, and inseparably related with the first, to convince the reader to reclaim the Church Father’s sacramental reading of Scripture. Let’s take both in turn, beginning with the second claim:

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Boersma’s faculty photo at Regent College in Vancouver, a fantastic institution.

As anyone familiar with Hans Boersma’s thought will know, he is a sacramental theologian. It will be no surprise, then, to find the thesis that we must read Scripture sacramentally at the heart of his new book. As for his understanding of all creation as sacrament—that all things point to the goodness and reality of God— absolutely: understanding Thomas’ analogia entis—that we are all gifted being at every moment of our existence—was a defining moment in my intellectual life and spiritual understanding. Unfortunately, Boersma’s usage of the term “sacrament” is confusing in this book. When he turns to a “sacramental hermeneutic”, or the reading of Scripture he believes the Church Fathers employed, the term suddenly transitions from seeing all things as revealing God to seeing all Scriptures as revealing Christ. The usage is imprecise and leads to misunderstandings. Why not call it a “Christocentric” understanding of Scripture, for example? The reason I bring it up here is because I am not convinced of everything that he believes a “sacramental hermeneutic” entails and yet I would very much want to affirm Boersma’s sacramental theology. Let me draw this out by going to Boersma’s second driving theme.

The most fascinating, though controversial, motif of Scripture as Real Presence is Boersma’s thesis that we read Scripture only as well as our background metaphysics allows us to. Drawing from Origen, Boersma says that, “good metaphysics leads to good hermeneutics” (5). What that means more concretely is, “The way we think about the relationship between God and the world is immediately tied up with the way we read Scripture” (ibid). As moderns, we look at Scripture much too mechanistically, which, Boersma believes, has led to reductionism—the stripping away of profound truths and formation from Scripture. Instead of reading as moderns, we must get back to the pre-modern (read Platonic) “sacramental hermeneutic” of patristic interpretation. Boersma explains: “the reason the church fathers practice typology, allegory, and so on is that they were convinced that the reality of the Christ event was already present (sacramentally) within the history described within the Old Testament narrative. To speak of a sacramental hermeneutic, therefore, is to allude to the recognition of the real presence of the new Christ-reality hidden within the outward sacrament of the biblical text” (12).

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Origen, the third-century Alexandrian theologian plays a large role in Boersma’s book.

His usage of sacramental is unclear to me here—is it because Christ is the Logos through which all of creation and reason is informed that He is present in all parts of the Old Testament narrative, for example? What’s concerning to me is how Boersma next marries a “sacramental hermeneutic” to Christian Platonisim: “To speak, therefore, of a ‘sacramental hermeneutic’ is not to reject other, perhaps more common labels [like allegory, anagogy] but rather to allude to the shared metaphysical grounding of these various exegetical approaches” (13). So, wait…. Does that mean I can’t read Scripture Christo-centrically if I’m not a Platonist? It often seems like it. Consider this:

“My Christian Platonist convictions imply that I will happily go back to the church fathers (or the Middle Ages or anywhere else) to look for insights that can contribute to the practice of a sacramental reading today. After all, the question of whether a ressourcement of the exegesis of the church fathers is possible and worthwhile is, ultimately, a question of the truth or false of its metaphysical and hermeneutical presuppositions (276).”

The way this works out in practice is that Boersma takes on the popularity of N.T. Wright whom he has stand in for the “redemptive historical” method of biblical interpretation and the new perspective on Paul.

The redemptive historical method Boersma sees as too confined by a modern hermeneutic. He says, “One of the greatest pastoral drawbacks of both the historical method and the new perspective on Paul is that it’s hard to see how, with these approaches, readers of the Old Testament are able to relate the historical narrative to their own lives” (xiv).

Additionally, “The weakness of historical exegesis…is that it doesn’t treat the Old Testament as a sacrament that already contains the New Testament reality of Christ” (xv).

In other words, without a Platonic metaphysic that allows for allegorical readings, the reader of the biblical text is unable to see how all of Scripture points to Christ and the Old Testament stands relevant only inasmuch as we can leave it behind and relate it to today. I found this an odd claim given how much I have benefited from seeing both the Old and New Testament scriptures in their historical context as a grand narrative with Jesus at their center and as their climax: in other words, in the redemptive-historical method that Boersma wants us to reconsider. In fact, I see Boersma’s dichotomy between historical and sacramental exegesis to be the biggest weakness with this work. I don’t think that he would advocate abandoning historical exegesis but in certain places he certainly discounts its importance and its relevance. In the conclusion, for instance, after ringing an optimistic tune about whether a return to pre-modern patristic exegesis is possible, Boersma says, “Thankfully, it is possible to point to a growing conviction, not only among dogmatic theologians but also among biblical scholars, that exegesis is not primarily a historical endeavor and that it first of all asks about the subject of the text—that is to say, about God and our relationship to Him” (277, emphasis added).

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Plato from Raphael’s School of Athens. Detail.

Now, Boersma would simply accuse me of being too wedded to my modern metaphysic but a statement like that makes me profoundly nervous. Chrysostom, Boersma says, expressed his concern that an allegorical reading of the Scriptures could lead to the text saying whatever the reader wanted them to. But we should not fear, Boersma says, because the “rule of faith” disallows any reading of Scripture that would conflict with orthodoxy. But what of the myriad of conflicting interpretations that lead daily to denominational splits, all “read in the Spirit”? Chrysostom’s worry becomes my fear when I read a sentence that states that exegesis isn’t really about history. Does this not imply that we should simply throw the author’s original intent out the window? Indeed, scriptural interpretation is not only history but it is certainly not less. I understand that we stay wedded only to the literal sense of Scripture at our peril and spiritual impoverishment, but to imply that we do not begin with the history and context of Scripture—that Scripture is not primarily about what the author’s intended to convey—invites, unfortunately, not a pre-modern sacramental reading contained within the Church’s rule of faith, but only encourages the continual splintering of the tens of thousands of denominations that we see today.

Boersma, as a self identified Christian Platonist, has written an important book in which he challenges the dominance of modern historical exegesis in favor of a pre-modern “sacramental hermeneutic” which follows in the footsteps of the Church fathers. We should stand and applaud Boersma’s sacramental theology and his desire to read Scripture more richly. All of creation and Scripture is a sacrament in that it points to the presence and glory of God and Boersma is one of our finest Protestant voices in reminding us of that fact. But I question the wisdom of downplaying historical exegesis for a Platonic and allegorizing hermeneutic. (In fact, I quite like Aristotle.) In my experience, 21st century Protestant readers of Scripture are already far too uprooted from the important details of, say, second-temple Judaism, in order to make their reading of Scripture more meaningful and fruitful. Surely we can see Christ in all of Scripture without being Christian Platonists. I’m tired of being asked, “What is this Scripture saying to you?” What I want to know is: what did the writers intend to say to their original historical audience? Then, and only then, may I ask and answer the subjective question with conviction.

*Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

Being a Christian Under Trump

Though I have not yet had the chance to read Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Optionit sounds like it is a thoughtful work on how Christians should handle themselves in a society that would elect, say, a Donald J. Trump to run the country. It has been getting a good deal of attention—I count no less than 15 recent articles or reviews of it from Real Clear Religion in the last two months.  Scot McKnight has a fine summary on its major proposals today on his blog. I was struck by this: The forces of dissolution from popular culture are too great for individuals or families to resist on their own. We need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith.41QY+zZAzfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m all in on that. McKnight says that the practices Dreher attaches to his Benedict Option mainly stem for the Catholic Virtue Ethics tradition. Again, I’m all in on that. Here’s a couple that resonated with me in particular taken directly from McKnight’s blog:

  1.  Order. If a defining characteristic of the modern world is disorder, then the most fundamental act of resistance is to establish order. If we don’t have internal order, we will be controlled by our human passions and by the powerful outside forces who are in greater control of directing liquid modernity’s deep currents.

This means the discovery of the order, the logos, that God has written into the nature of Creation and seeking to live in harmony with it. … To order the world rightly as Christians requires regarding all things as pointing to Christ. …

2.  Work. This is how we must approach our jobs: as opportunities to glorify God. More deeply, Benedictines view their work as an expression of love and stewardship of the community and as a way of reordering the natural world in harmon with God’s will. For the Christian, work has sacramental value. 61

3.  Hospitality. According to the Rule, we must never turn away someone who needs our love. A church or other Benedict Option community must be open to the world, to share the bounty of God’s love with those who lack it. 72

Fleming Rutledge and the Crucifixion

*Rutledge’s book came out a couple years ago but it has won some major awards and recently been re-released in paperback so I wanted to post a review that I wrote which I never posted, which I thought especially apropos given that it’s Holy Week.

Fleming Rutledge- The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ Eerdmans, 2015 (669 pp.)

Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God.

–PBS special “The Christians” 1981.

51iB04IqXvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Why the cross? It seems an easily answered question for those familiar with the plot line of Christianity but on reflection the crucifixion does not easily explain itself and requires interpretation, Rutledge says. Ask even mature Christians what it was that Jesus accomplished on the cross and how it was accomplished and the answers will likely be short and fairly inarticulate — thus the need for this book. The Crucifixion is a gift to preachers and teachers alike in large part because there are surprisingly few books of this kind in publication. Her book fills a hole in the need for book-length overviews of the atonement.

There are two things that are particularly helpful about the way Rutledge has written her book:

First, she writers as a preacher for preachers. Rutledge is not interested in a theology book for theology sake but to give preachers and teachers a resource for better understanding and speaking about the death of Jesus Christ. “These pages attempt to be a bridge between academic scholarship, on the one hand, and local congregations, on the other,” she writes in the preface (xvii). Her book is littered with anecdotes, literature quotations and excerpts from the liturgy of the Church (particularly Episcopalian of which she is a part). It is clear that she has continually asked herself, ‘will it preach?’ in the composition of this lengthy book. Her section on Jesus wrestling with the forces of evil and death in the garden of Gesthemene (pp. 371-375) should be read by every preacher before they begin preparing their annual Easter sermon. It will undoubtedly bring the earth-shattering consequences of Jesus life, death and resurrection back into the heart of the gospel with the reminder that Jesus death is much more than the forgiveness of individual sin but also the victory of God over everything that opposes His reign.

Second, Rutledge is intentionally inclusionary of the Church’s wide-ranging and diverse interpretations of the atonement. The Crucifixion is not written to privilege the Christus Victor view over the substitutionary model or to defend the “legacy” of the Reformers interpretation of penal substitution, to note just two of the more prevalent current reasons for those writing on the atonement. Though Rutledge admits that it is a “challenge” to address such a profound topic in an understandable way while still engaging with the wide spectrum of the church’s teaching about the crucifixion of Christ, her decades of pastoral experience in the Church have made this “work of a lifetime” a comprehensive overview of the theories of the atonement. Though this inclusionary treatment has made the book a lengthy read, for the faithful and persistent reader, however, this inclusionary approach is invaluable. This reviewer, for instance, has come away with a deeper understanding of Anselm, apocalyptic and hell to name but just a few of the more prominent sub-themes that run throughout The Crucifixion.

From the outset, Rutledge notes that there are actually two questions connoted in the question of why the cross? The first and most obvious is, why was it necessary for Jesus to give his life away? But there is another that is seldom asked: why was the cross —crucifixion— the means by which that death was accomplished? Anslem in his treatise on the atonement, Cur Deus Homo, asks, why should God have to “stoop to such lowly things,” as the crucifixion or “do anything with such great labor” when he could simply flick the demons away? Though the first question guides the book as a whole, the second, Rutledge says, stands at its heart. Anselm’s answer to his interlocutor, and one that Rutledge returns to continually is a sobering one: “Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis peccatum sit—You have not yet considered the gravity of sin.”

In the first part of the book, “The Crucifixion.” Rutledge builds on Anselm’s answer for why the crucifixion specifically was the form of death chosen for Jesus. Her answer is that the cross and the crucifixion, “marks out the essential distinction between Christianity and ‘religion.’” That is, the crucifixion is such a horrendous death that it must dethrone any type of natural preconceptions that we may have of who God should be or what He should be like. The sheer “irreligiousness” of the cross subverts any anthropomorphic reductions of Christianity in the guise of a Feuerbach or a Freud. This really isn’t something that could be made up, is the essence of Rutledge’s claim. Paul said the same thing: “for we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” This notion of the “irreligiousness” of the cross is a powerful reminder and one that pastors need to reclaim time and time again in order to remind the Church that in the words of Moltmann, we worship a “crucified God.”

The sheer scandal of such a proclamation was brought home recently when a Muslim friend said to my wife, “that cannot be true. God cannot die.”

Having reminded the reader in part one of just how subversive and strange the central belief of Christianity really is, Rutledge turns to the more traditional question of what Jesus accomplished in the much longer part two, “The Biblical Motifs.” She gives a helpful two-fold categorical grouping of the various theories of the cross offered in Scripture ­— atonement and deliverance. The first, atonement, is God’s action in making vicarious reparation for sin that understands the cross as a sacrifice, sin offering, guilt offering, expiation, and substitution where related motifs are the scapegoat, the Lamb of God and the Suffering Servant. The second, deliverance, is God’s victory over the powers of sin and death that sees the cross as rescue from bondage, slavery, and oppression and interprets it as the new exodus, the harrowing of hell, and Christ the Victor. From there, she devotes eight chapters to expanding on each of the major theories that come out of these two main categories. I will not take up any more space diving into those chapters, but they deserve your time.

Reading Rutledge’s book is a commitment — it is long and extensive because it is concerned with eliminating the shrug and the “heard it before” understanding of what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ death is the crux from which all of history turns and it demands our time and study. Rutledge has given believers and seekers alike a gift The Crucifixion. It invites us all to understand in order to love the greatest gift that has ever been given.

 

 

Good Friday

Grunewald-Crucifixion

Today we look upon our Lord. All seems lost. We have all scattered. It appears Rome has won. John the Baptist points to our Lord, He was supposed to be the Messiah, the Lamb that would take away the sins of the world. But how can he do that if he is dead?

Jesus the Faithful Israelite- Thursday Holy Week Meditations

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Golgotha, the rock upon which history turns.  

Today we have come to Golgotha, a small and insignificant hill in Jerusalem where criminals of the state are executed. We come to it a day early so that tomorrow we might say little and simply pray and weep at the body of our Lord who hangs upon the tree.

Yesterday, Wednesday of Holy Week, we looked at how it was going to take someone that was more than flesh to overcome the curse of the law because Torah had proved that every person was trapped in his and her flesh and all of its bondages to sin.

“Adam’s sin established a regime of spreading death that led to sin….Israel herself was overtaken by flesh and came under a curse” (203). Because Israel is itself entrapped in flesh, Torah, the law that was given to her in order that she might bless the nations, has become her prosecutor that she too, is entrapped in the flesh and under the curse of sin. Leithart says, “The curse is not exclusively because Israel became proud of her possession of Torah or because individual Israelites were proud of their meritorious law-keeping, though both of those attitudes are examples of how flesh perverts Torah. Paul’s point [in Galatians] is far more straightforward: the curse rests on Israel because she has failed to obey the law (Gal 3:10) [199, original emphasis]. And so Paul says that the chosen people of God have been liberated through the work of the Jesus and his death on the cross:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:13-14 NRSV).

Leithart- Delivered from the ElementsThis is why Paul is so incredulous toward the Galatians. How could those who received the Spirit and been freed from the curse through their belief in the faithfulness of Christ, return to the old stoicheia, to the very law which pronounced the curse upon them? It is only through understanding Jesus as Son of David, as the faithful Israelite, that the mechanism of the atonement comes into full view. It is here that we come to the heart of the mystery of Easter week and are able to have a clue to answering the question that centers Leithart’s book: “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century…be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”

Hanging on the tree, he is a cursed one, and by bearing the curse he breaks through the curse….Jesus is condemned as a rebellious son, though he is not. He is condemned as a rebellious son by the rebellious son, Israel in the flesh. In that precise sense, Jesus suffers the curse of Israel. Because Jesus the faithful Israelite bears the curse, he delivers/redeems Israel from the curse. He takes the place of Israel that should be cursed in order to remove the cursing. And so the flow of blessing, the flow of the Spirit, begins (200).

By jumping straight to the universalizing of sin, that Jesus died for all, we miss precisely how redemption from the curse works. Paul is speaking to his fellow Israelites when he says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law….” Are the rest of us Gentiles rescued as well because of the death of Christ, well yes, but one misses the glory of the story of Scripture and the workings of the plan of God if one skips over why Jesus must have been from the line of David. That’s why Paul in his greatest letter describes the gospel as being “promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh…” (Romans 1:2-3).

As Leithart says, “God’s promise is universal, to ‘justify the Gentiles by faith,’ but that universal promise is realized only in the fulfillment of the particular promise that the blessing will come through Abraham’s seed” (201).

Through the faithfulness of Jesus the true Israelite, Israel has fulfilled its mission to bless the world. The same Spirit that hovered over the waters and moved to create, now descends upon the nations.

Heading Toward Golgotha- Wednesday of Holy Week

While we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. Galatians 4:3-5

Yesterday we saw how it is flesh and all its bondage to sin and death that keeps us from having a relationship with God. We saw how God called Abraham to be the father of a people that would reverse the separation of humanity from God and how God established a sign of that promise by the cutting away of flesh as both symbolically and literally enacting the removal and the defeat of flesh. That was the beginning of the rescue of humanity, but the fullness of time had not come yet, Paul tells us in Galatians 4. It was only with the birth of God’s son that the fullness of time arrived. Only then had the climax of the rescue operation begun.

Leithart- Delivered from the ElementsWhen Paul refers to those under the law in the verses above, he is, of course, talking about the Jewish people, the children of Abraham. How did Paul know that the Jewish people were themselves trapped under the stoicheia, the elements of the world? He knew through what the Jewish law had revealed. The law was given to the Jews in order to purify them so that God might tabernacle in their midst. But the law, originally meant as a code of living that would enable the Jews to take YHWH to all the nations, over time became a way of separating themselves from the world that they were called to redeem. The law, meant to bring life and restoration with God, eventually became a curse and divided humanity into two groups: Jews and Gentiles. As Leithart says, “But God promised his blessing to a single “seed,” and that means that the divided state of Israel and the Gentiles cannot be the final condition of humanity” (205). The law, meant as a way to kill flesh in order to draw near to God became a means of enforcing the prevailing stoicheia—those sinful divisions at the heart of all wars and violence—became the very means by which Israel showed itself also as a slave to flesh, unable to complete the task of rescue. Meant to become a source of life, the law became a curse and revealed the extent to which all of humanity, even God’s covenant people, were trapped by the powers of the flesh. But if the law meant to bring life only showed how those called to rescue were now under the power of curse and they themselves needed rescuing, what was to be done?

Because the law proved that everyone born of flesh is held captive by the power of sin, no mere human could enact God’s rescue plan. We are all human, all too human, as Nietzsche himself found out when even his powerful mind failed him in his last years. If what Paul says is true, that in the fullness of time God’s son was born of a woman, that is, born of flesh, and born under the law and yet was still able, somehow, to redeem those under the law, we are able to immediately deduce a couple of things. One, God’s son, even though he was born of flesh, had to have been somehow, more than flesh, if he was able to redeem those under the law and not himself be cursed by the law. If he was only flesh, he too would have fallen under the curse of the law, because if there is one thing that the law had proven, it was that anyone who was fully flesh fell under the curse of disobedience of the law. Secondly, we know then that God’s Son must have, somehow, fully obeyed or fulfilled what the law required in order to escape the curse of the law that prosecuted the rest of God’s people—more than human because able to redeem from the curse. And so Paul tells his fellow Jews in the verses above that they are no longer enslaved but instead have been adopted as God’s own children!

Could it be that God’s son, Yeshua, or Jesus as his name has come down to us, did not fall under the curse of the law because he was somehow able to sweep the law away, cause it to disappear or abrogate it? That is a position that has tempted many believers throughout the ages but we know that cannot be the case from Jesus’ own words. “Do not think that I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets’ I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 6:17-18). It’s a funny thing that you say so Jesus because that’s exactly what everyone was thinking: that you had come to abolish the law. Your actions led us to believe that you didn’t care about the law, treating Sabbath so flippantly and talking to the religious leaders the way that you did. How could your life possibly be a fulfillment of the law? It’s here where I find Leithart’s book to be brilliant and helpful: Jesus fulfilled the law in the only way that it could be fulfilled, living through the Spirit and not through the flesh. “While in the flesh, Jesus kept Torah in the fullness of the Spirit, something no other human had done before” (151). The reason that it looked like Jesus was breaking every little stroke of the law is because we were looking at it through the eyes of the flesh. We weren’t asking the right questions: What would Torah-keeping look like if it were carried out by Spirit rather than by flesh? What would Torah-keeping look like if there was no more need for circumcision’s gesture of separation from separation? (137). Well apparently, it would look like how God Himself would keep Torah if he were embodied. That is, it would exactly like Jesus‘ life.

The question remains however: aren’t the covenant people still under the curse that the law has shackled her with. Even if the law has now been perfectly fulfilled by one man, what of the curse that hovers over everyone else? It’s here where are journey toward Golgotha this Holy Week finds its direct path. Now, we see the cross.

Flesh and the Elements: Tuesday Holy Week Meditations

Chesterton said that there could be no argument with the most fundamental of Christian claims that the world is held captive and that all are born under the grip of sin. Just look at the world, he said. One need not even turn his eyes outside the windows. In scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday it was more than I could bear to see the bombings of Egyptian Christians and a Syrian father holding his suffocated babies from the chemical attack. It broke me down. I shut my computer screen and begged God to reveal where He was.

Leithart- Delivered from the ElementsIn essence, that’s where Holy Week meditations begin, on our sin that put Him there as the hymn says it. Leithart’s book, which I am using to reflect on what exactly happened this week some 2000 years again, begins there—though in all of sin’s cosmic and universal dimensions—by looking at the somewhat mystifying expression of Paul: Τα στοιχεία του κόσμου which translates into “the elements of the world” and gives Leithart his title. It’s a hotly debated phrase in Paul though it occurs only in two letters, Galatians 4 and Colossians 2. Even though its used very little, the phrase lies at the heart of Paul’s thinking, because it describes in its most basic elements the essence of the old order, of creation groaning and humanity bound to its fetters of death in the power of sin.

What happens when we contextualize Paul’s use of the phrase “the elements of the world” in the context of the philosophical thought of the time? Leithart’s treatment makes for fascinating reading for those captivated by how Paul uses the culture of his time to shape his message about this risen Son of David. “Elements” (Τα στοιχεία) most commonly referred to the basic constituents of the world, the basic elements of matter. “In Greek texts, generally, the term does not connote simplicity but the foundational character of what is being described, with a further hint that the particulars form an interlocking system” (30). What’s so striking given this cultural background and then turning to the specific ways in which Paul uses the phrase is how “[i]nstead of being permanent features of the physical world [for Paul], as they are in Greek philosophy and science, the elements are redescribed as features of an old creation that Christ has in some way brought to an end” (25).

The term that Scripture uses to further compress all that has been brought to an end through God’s vindication of Jesus is “flesh”, σάρξ in the Greek (sarx). Sarx is used 149 times in the New Testament and is a loaded and important theological word. Flesh is much more than muscle and bone for the biblical writers—it is the description of humanity following the fall. Like the biblical writers, Leithart’s book uses sarx as a catch all for describing the stoicheic grip on the old order of things. He says things like, “stoicheic structures and the associated practices were fundamentally intertwined with fleshly life” and “flesh denotes the vulnerability and weakness of human beings and especially our vulnerability to death” and “if human groups are going to function peaceably and justly, if the justice of God is to take root in creation and humanity, flesh must be defeated.” Sarx is a placeholder for all creation cursed by sin, culminating in exile from the garden, from perfect union with God. In order to be able to reenter the garden and walk in the coolness of the day with God, our fleshly life, with all of its sin and decay that leads to death, must be removed. But given that the stoicheic elements are what constitutes the basis of reality and that they birth flesh, where can we possibly turn? We know that Good Friday begins the climactic, mystifying, triumphant answer to that claim. But we cannot start there. We must begin from the beginning.

N.T. Wright likes to quote a passage from the Rabbinic literature (Genesis Rabbah 14:6) which says, “I will make Adam and if he goes astray I will send Abraham to sort it out.” That’s where we must first go then in looking for an answer to the question. An especially brilliant “aha” moment that I got from Leithart was his treatment of circumcision. He treats circumcision as both the symbolic representation and literal removal of sarx in the cutting of the foreskin. That makes no sense in itself, but it is brilliant insight when it is placed within the context of the call of Abraham and the people of God., beginning in the Lech-Lecha of Genesis 12.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God commissioned Abraham and his “seed” (single line of descent, the family of God in Galatians 3:29) to be the people through whom humanity would be liberated from its slavery to sarx. Through Abraham, all of the people of the world would be drawn back to YHWH, the God whose very Spirit and Word had shaped the formless void into the diverse spots of the cheetah and the cry of the hungry baby and the roar of the Niagara Falls. Through Abraham and the child of the promise, humanity would turn back to its Creator; through Abraham, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The first sign of that promise was circumcision from Genesis 17:

This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.

 The body of flesh and its slavery to sin was and is what stands between restored relationship between our heart, skin and bones and God. Humanity would only be able to live as God intended when flesh was (is) put to death. There is much talk about salvation Circumcision was the advance sign that through God’s gracious election, flesh would be dealt with and salvation would come. But before final salvation, another man of flesh would be crucified. That is our meditation during Holy Week.

Praise Be to God!