Tuesday 9 March 2021

Was there a core purpose to Jesus's suffering and death by crucifixion? The Fourth Gospel says not

What was the purpose of it all? What did He come to do? Well, to teach, of course; but as soon as you look into the New Testament or any other Christian writing you will find they are constantly talking about something different—about His death and His coming to life again. It is obvious that Christians think the chief point of the story lies here. They think the main thing He came to earth to do was to suffer and be killed.

From Mere Christianity, by CS Lewis (1952)

I was brought-up short yesterday, hearing this passage from Lewis's Mere Christianity read-out; with the realization of how different were my own view from those of Lewis (and of most Christians) - especially Protestants. 

It is easy for me to forget (in the daily matter of Christian living) that for many mainstream, orthodox, traditional Christians; the 'main thing' about Jesus is his crucifixion and death; that is this supposed to have been an 'atonement' for the accumulated sins of Men - this atonement enabling Men to choose resurrected Heavenly life after their biological deaths. 

For most Christians it is very important - centrally important - to what Jesus did for us that he suffered before and during his death, and that he was crucified. There are many differing theories about 'how this works'; but of its central significance there is broad agreement. 

Yet for one such as myself who regards the Fourth Gospel ('John') as the primary and most authoritative source of information on Jesus and his teaching; this focus on the atonement is an error. In the Fourth Gospel no special significance is accorded to the manner of Jesus's death (except for the fulfillment of some prophecies that identify him as Messiah). 

And I see nothing in the Fourth Gospel to suggest that by-dying Jesus was cleansing Mankind of sin, accomplishing some general work on behalf of Men, or anything of that kind. 

The Fourth Gospel (implicitly) tells us that Jesus died because he was a Man - he was a Man who became divine at the baptism by John; but Jesus was a mortal Man and would (obviously) need to die biologically, like all of us, in order to attain eternal resurrected life in Heaven. 

There is nothing in the Fourth Gospel that suggests to me either that Jesus's sufferings leading up to death, or mode of death by crucifixion, were of special or 'functional' significance. 

As I have often said; the Fourth Gospel has a very clear and simple message - that Jesus came to bring the possibility of resurrected life eternal in Heaven; and that this possibility was available to anyone who recognized that He had been sent by God and who believed in Him and followed him. 

(With this 'following' of Jesus to life-everlasting meaning something very literal, on the lines of a sheep following a shepherd.) 

My overall inference is that the idea that Jesus atoned for the sins of Mankind, by his suffering and death; and indeed the idea that such atonement was necessary for salvation, are errors. 

Part of the error is, I think, a failure to recognize that by 'sin' Jesus meant - mostly - death. He was not talking about transgressions of The Law (except in a very secondary fashion). 

It seems that Jewish theologians believed that it was the accumulation of sins (individually and collectively) that was 'blocking' salvation; and therefore that Jesus 'must have', somehow, wiped-away that accumulation - e.g. by a massive act of atoning sacrifice. 

But the Fourth Gospel implies simply that before Jesus there was no 'route' for Men to get to Heaven; and it was Jesus's 'job' to make a path via which Men could - after biologically-dying and by following Him - reach Heaven. 

Anyway; my trigger for writing this post was CS Lewis's assumption that the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus as an necessary atonement and the 'chief point' of being A Christian. 

This strikes me as simply an error on CSL's part, which came from his creedal definition of Christianity, which itself came from The Churches. 

In effect; Lewis set up a definition of Christianity after having-assumed that only obedient 'Trinitarian', 'creedal' Catholics and Protestant church-members were real-Christians. Having drawn that line, he produced a core/ 'mere' set of definitions. 

But one, like me, who believes there are many other ways to be a Christian, i.e. a believer-in-the-divinity-of and follower of Jesus - there is no reason to bring any particular churches into it; and no reason to believe that assent-to a form-of-words is essential.  

Yet it is possible, and as of 2021 almost essential, to derive one's definition of Christianity (including one's interpretation of scripture) from sources independent of The Churches; and endorsed by individual 'subjective', intuitive discernment. 

That we each must find Christianity for ourselves - and take full personal responsibility for it - is, I think, already easy to perceive. And it gets easier and easier to perceive with every passing month as the corruption of external institutional sources becomes more-and-more extreme. 

I hesitate to say it; but some of CS Lewis's assumptions in Mere Christianity would, if accepted, prove actively harmful in our current context; and would drive the potential convert away from God and into the welcoming arms of Satan - there to be enlisted in his 'great work' of global damnation. 

The primacy of personal discernment is now unavoidable - but in trying to avoid it, and to behave as if they lived three generations ago - many Christians are being led into chosen damnation. 

Note added - The way I think about it (as here) is to ask if Jesus's suffering and death by crucifixion was necessary to the success of his mission? To ask: If Jesus had lived a happy life and died of old age - would his mission have failed? 

My answer is No. the success of Jesus's mission depended on his incarnation and becoming a fully-divine but mortal Man. His death and resurrection was what made it possible to save us; by enabling us to ascend to Heaven like him. It helped identify Jesus to some of his contemporaries as the Messiah (other noticing that not all the Messianic prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus). 

But Jesus did not need to have particular life experiences or a particular mode of dying to fulfil his divine mission; which was to bring Men the possibility of eternal resurrected life in Heaven.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

A very important point. "The Atonement" had always been a major stumbling block for me as a Christian.

The way it was always presented in Mormonism was that God needed to be both perfectly just and perfectly merciful. Justice demanded that we be punished for our sins to the full extent of the moral law, but mercy demanded that we not be. The "solution" was to punish the innocent Jesus for everyone's sins instead of punishing the sinners themselves! Thus sin was punished but sinners were spared, satisfying both Justice and Mercy.

How anyone could think such a set-up either just or merciful is beyond me, and I wasted a great deal of spiritual and intellectual energy exploring "alternative" theories of the Atonement. All along, what I really needed to do was un-ask the question.

As I have explained elsewhere, Jesus was the Lamb of God -- which meant, to his Torah-savvy contemporaries, not a sin-offering (which would have been a bullock) but a Passover offering -- to save us not from moral guilt but from the Angel of Death.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - "esus was the Lamb of God -- which meant, to his Torah-savvy contemporaries, not a sin-offering (which would have been a bullock) but a Passover offering -- to save us not from moral guilt but from the Angel of Death."

That was a brilliant insight - which I recommend reading.

Your description of the Mormon theology of atonement sound identical (in key points, although less-so superficially) with Protestant low-church evangelical theology; as I have heard it expounded from the pulpit on many occasions.

Which - given the vast differences in deep metaphysical assumptions of Mormon theology (and the idea of recovering pre-church-father, pre-classical philosophy, Apostolic Christianity) - suggests to me that Mormon theologians have Not worked-through the true implications of their basic assumptions.

And by now the errors are apparently locked-in by generations of expounding by the leadership. This history of error should not matter - according to Joseph Smith's ideas - but in practice it does; since Mormons have (over the generations) come to regard the church leadership as inerrant (in a manner analogous to older Roman Catholicism).

One would have thought it obvious that Mormon theology ought to be directed-towards the life eternal - since that life is so vividly described and imagined; and active Mormons apparently believe-in the reality and relevance of eternal life more solidly than almost anyone.

But here, as so often, contingent 'church order' issues have come to dominate denominational activity to a severely distorting - indeed falsifying - extent.

William Wildblood said...

I have never been able to understand the idea of the atonement either. I can see the crucifixion as a symbolic sacrifice of the ego and the giving up of the lower self so that its essence may be transformed into a spiritual being and even as something necessary for Jesus himself to bring him into full communion with the Father (his prayers in the garden of Gethsemane do indicate the union was not complete at that point). But as a rather crude exchange for the sins of mankind? This sounds like an extrapolation from the scapegoat idea and a human rather than divine approach to how things are. I am quite prepared to be proved wrong on this matter but I don't see it myself.

Gary Bleasdale said...

I think the core essence of Christianity is the "overcoming of the World as the key of life" (a lot to unpack there but I'll leave it at that).

To die in such a gruesome and unjust manner, to have known that it would be that way and have chosen it and endured it patiently, is the apex of showing how the world can be overcome, and how his Kingdom really is not of this world.

In that sense, Jesus showed that he held good on his promise - he had Free Will, so presumably could've chosen at the last minute, to change things to avoid that awesome suffering. In that sense, "the crucifixion atoned for all the sins of mankind" because it PROVED that Jesus was who he said he was (not necessarily to other men, but to God himself) - it was Jesus's Proof, which by having been carried out, then allowed what he offered (freedom from death, i.e. sin) to become effective and real.

In that sense I agree that the Crucifixion was central and if it had not happened, for whatever reason, then Mankind would not have been able to follow Jesus (because Jesus wouldn't be who he said he was... it would've been a failure of his Mission on earth) and therefore sin wouldn't be able to be redeemed, and wiped clean.

Having said this, my understanding above is a "post-facto", because I intuitely think the Crucifixion is indeed central, and need to account for that in a way which makes sense to me.

agraves said...

The reality of life after death was apparent to early Christians with communication with the deceased as a simple fact. The later adopting Roman Empire qualities to the Church would change the pleasant reality to one of damnation and hell if you didn't believe. The whole super structure of the Church has caused people to not be able to think clearly as they are muddled about what they should believe and fear life after death: going to hell forever being one such idea. No atonement would be necessary if simply accepting life after death. These large (Mormon, Catholic) belief systems do damage to a persons' life, emotional, physical, etc.

Charlie said...

Bruce, I'm coincidentally just about to read Mere Christianity for the first time (got it in the mail a few days ago).

You mention that some of Lewis's assumptions could prove actively harmful in our current context. Can you say any more about this? Any particular assumptions that should be taken with a grain of salt?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Charlie - Well, here is a key passage from the introduction addressed to new Christian converts - which tells them that the Must - to be Christian - join a church (hence, presumably, make whatever commitment to obey authorities, that church demands). I tried to follow this advice (and other advice by Lewis, about joining the church of your baptism and the nearest church of this chosen denomination, not picking and choosing); with the result that in was trying to be a Christian in a *very* liberal-mainstream SJW church:

"I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.

It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.

The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.

It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait.

When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping.

You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house.

And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?”

"When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house."

Ben Pratt said...

I was raised in and continue to participate actively in the mainline Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Different explanatory models of the atonement have been put forward over the millennia, and at times some of these have enjoyed over-the-pulpit support from CoJCoLdS authorities. The Penal Substitutionary theory decried by Wm above originates with Calvin and Luther and is probably the most commonly-held theory of the atonement by most Protestants, especially Evangelicals. I suspect it has been accepted implicitly by most Latter-day Saints and leaders not because it necessarily has strong scriptural and intuitive support (I don't think it has either), but because of cultural influence.

My understanding of the Atonement is that it is one of Jesus' two greatest unique contribution to God's creation, the other being the Resurrection. I believe it enabled repentance and more generally, growth and change of any kind. In a way I'm not sure I can explain, I believe that one particular moment during which Jesus was in Gethsemane is the Center of Time, analogous somehow to the center of the earth, and that every single human being (and possibly every mortal being) is connected to that moment in time. Most of the above comes from extremely personal spiritual experiences.

William Wildblood said...

I've been thinking about this and it seems unlikely to me that a fundamental Christian doctrine would come out of nothing. As Jesus was without sin, the only human being ever to be so, could the fact that the devil took something, ie Jesus's life, which was not his to take mean that he thereby lost his rights over all other humans who gave themselves to Jesus and so partook in his resurrected life? I have to say that makes sense to me.

So I am slightly backtracking on my previous comment.

ben said...

Seems to me to be a demonstration of the savagery of the non-Christian torturers/executioners, and provides an alternative in the love-based, self-sacrificial contrasting example of Christ. The moment when the old way began to be replaced by the new via the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. If pre-Christians could so brutalize such an innocent and benevolent man, what value is there in their ways? This inspires this love-based morality to replace the predatory one of the pre-Christian time.

Hatcher said...

In Fr. John Strickland’s (Historian & Orthodox Priest) The Age of Paradise , the author argues that this over-emphasis on penitential aspects of Christianity, which produced much theology of atonement, was a result of The Western church losing touch with East, where an emphasis on the Incarnation (a new, metaphysically real joining of heaven & earth we can now participate in) ameliorates the “heaviness” of personal sin~ sin being much more an external (demonic) force in the world that can overtake us in weakness, as opposed to a kind of psychological condition or disease emanating from within.
If you’re interested, you can hear Fr Strickland speak with Jonathan Pageau about his book here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-symbolic-world/id1386867488?i=1000510334786

Bruce Charlton said...

"the main thing He came to earth to do was to suffer and be killed."

That really is an extraordinary statement, if you think about it. It does not require any human qualities to suffer and be killed - it is something many animals can do and have done. The only agency of such a conception of Jesus was before incarnation, in consenting to do this thing.

Wurmbrand said...

Scholars have questioned the doctrine of the atonement in St. John's Gospel. This is a rejoinder to that view:


The doctrine of the atonement in the Church Fathers:



Hope these are helpful.

Lady Mermaid said...

I grew up in a low church Protestant background and the Atonement was explained in similar terms to what WmJas described. I struggled w/ this explanation as killing someone in someone else's place doesn't really serve justice or make things right.

Since you bring up the Gospel of John quite often, I have decided to read through it. I may be completely missing the point but I will try to share what I understand of the Atonement.

The concept of sacrifice is quite foreign to our modern mindset but I believe you have pointed out that sacrifices were quite common in the pagan world. As recent examinations of Aztec civilization shows, humans would be sacrificed to appease vengeful gods. These false understanding of God was corrected when Abraham was called from Ur. Most people are aware of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Issac. This passage from Genesis has caused some people to question the goodness of God. However, someone in an old Twitter discussion pointed out, God deliberately stopped Abraham from sacrificing Issac. God was showing Abraham that He was ultimately different from the bloodthirsty and cruel pagan gods. I know the story can be quite jolting to our modern mindset, but God was revealing Himself to a man steeped in pagan misunderstandings.

A brilliant point raised by WmJas is that Jesus is the Lamb of God, not the goat. Sacrifices were used to forgive sins, but they could not remove sin. As a result of our sinfulness, death is our lot. However, the Gospel of John states that Jesus is the Lamb who "takes away the sin of the world". This sin was not merely breaking rules, but being out of line with the will of God and suffering separation from Him. Remember, that Jesus actively forgave sins during His ministry. If the only point of the Atonement was simply to have our sins forgiven, then it was a waste of time as sins could already be forgiven before the Crucifixion. However, the Atonement was meant to provide Resurrection, something far greater.

As to why Jesus had to die, I will finish w/ this verse I found in John. It blew me away.

"Most assuredly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. John 12:24

The Resurrection cannot happen w/o the Crucifixion. I believe that this is why God has allowed the Fall and sin to happen. We see this in nature as stars die to create new ones. Our resurrection will be great b/c we overcame sin through repentance and theosis. Julian of Norwich seemed to grasp this on some level as she scandously stated "Sin is behovely". I'm sorry for being long winded.

anne said...

This has been interesting to contemplate. The aspect of Jesus Christ's time on earth that has most struck me lately is this: because He is the Embodied Word of God, Jesus' teachings are God's Word speaking for itself. During His life on earth, His actions demonstrate for us the doing of God's will. We humans failed (and still fail) to understand God's Word to us as He gave it through language/ritual/culture, so He sent His Word to us in a form we could actually hope to relate to, understand, and follow. (That is, we can hope to copy the example of a fellow human.)

It is an inevitable (yet anticipated) consequence of the Incarnation that He was put to death. From our perspective in time, we often get the causality wrong. However necessary His death and resurrection are to fulfill the letter of the law, that is still secondary to the "Word become flesh and dwelt among us."

That is rough, but the best I got for now. So difficult to put into words.

Mike A. said...

Mercy cannot rob justice.

If I murdered someone, and then my brother mercifully volunteered to take my place in the electric chair so that I could walk free, would you feel that justice had been satisfied?


In fact, you might resent me that I was let off the hook for my crime, regardless of how sorry I felt for what I did.

The only way this scenario works is if it is God Himself who pays that penalty.

Christ paid a heavy price to redeem all of us from sin and death. We have been ransomed. All of us will eventually be mercifully saved from sin and death. We will all get what we want.

So, what do you want?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mike A - "The only way this scenario works is if it is God Himself who pays that penalty."

For me - this explanation does not work and is unjust, because I regard divine justice as a perfected type of what we know in our hearts as human justice. And thus the substituted sacrifice of an innocent just isn't justice.

I think this substitution explanation satisfies insofar as divine justice is regarded as qualitatively different from human justice, because God is qualitatively utterly distinct from Man. If God is assumes to be qualitatively different, then who knows what divine justice might be like - and it is a kind of blasphemy even to speculate - we can only submit willingly to the divine will.

This attitude is common among Christians, and apparently a core feature of Islam; but I regard it as mistaken - and against the spirit of Christianity established by the incarnated and mortal reality of Jesus Christ - which fact was, I think, meant to *show* us that the difference between God and Man was quantitative, not qualitative.

But mostly, I think the explanation of Jesus as a sacrifice is bound up with a misunderstanding of the reality of sin, its true nature - which I described in yesterday's blog post.

Bruce Charlton said...

General response - The way I think about it (as amplified here - https://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2021/03/was-jesus-without-sin-and-what-does.html ) is to ask if Jesus's suffering and death by crucifixion was necessary to the success of his mission?

To ask: If Jesus had lived a happy life and died of old age - would his mission have failed?

My answer is No. His mission depended on his incarnation and becoming a fully-divine but mortal Man. His death and resurrection was what made it possible to save us; by enabling us to ascend to Heaven like him. But he did not need to have particular life experiences or a particular mode of dying to fulfil his mission.

Kristor said...

To set one's private interpretation of one Gospel against that of all the other authors of the New Testament, all the Fathers, and the entire Christian Tradition looks to me like a bad bet. Who is more likely to have understood and praught the Passion and Atonement properly: the Early Church, crammed with people who had been taught by Apostles and their students, or a modern?

Repudiating our atonement by the Passion means repudiating John himself:

John 1:29: The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

1 John 1:7: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.

1 John 2:2: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 3:4-5: Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.

Why redeem us and open our way to everlasting life by the sacrifice of a lamb? At the most obvious level, the Passion occurred at Passover, as an echo and fulfillment thereof. Lambs were sacrificed at Passover, and their blood smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites, to avert visits to their houses by the Angel of Death and so save their firstborn males. So, yes, lambs either of sheep or of goats (Exodus 12:5) were sacrificed to avert death. But that does not mean lambs were not sacrificed as sin offerings; for, to save from death, one *must* save from the mortal effects that ineluctably – as a matter of moral logic – follow sinful disagreement with YHWH: to sin *just is* to doom oneself to death (Genesis 2:17). To quarrel with the Author of Life by sinning, and so to pledge our fealty elsewhere, is to agree with death.

Typologically, Jesus was a lamb who sacrificed himself for sinners in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:3-8:

3. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
6. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
8. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.

Jesus quoted Isaiah more than any other prophet.

The sacrifice of Jesus was foreshadowed in that of Isaac, and fulfilled it (Genesis 22:1-13). Isaac was spared, and YHWH provided a ram in his stead. The ram substituted for Isaac.

As for the justice of substitutionary sacrifice for the redemption of the ontological debt – i.e., for the repair of the ontological damage – inflicted by the sins of others, all sacrifice short of martyrdom is substitutionary: we offer sacrifices from our own substance – these days, money; in ancient days, young livestock and offspring – instead of offering our whole selves, and as a token and sign of the ultimate martyrdom we intend at and by our eventual death, and as it were a down payment thereupon. Only by that total sacrifice of martyrdom in death may we follow Jesus to everlasting life. A holy life, consecrated first to the Most High – which by definition cannot but involve ascetic privation of lesser, worldly goods we might otherwise enjoy, or serve – is a preparation and rehearsal of that sacrificial death.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - "To set one's private interpretation of one Gospel against that of all the other authors of the New Testament, all the Fathers, and the entire Christian Tradition looks to me like a bad bet...."

That is a false argument. You have just used your 'private interpretation' to judge which is 'a bad bet'.

What you pejoratively term 'private interpretation' is the basis of all Christian faith - which must be chosen. And it is that basis of all obedience to legitimate authority - which, again, must be chosen. Involuntary, passive, unconscious - or compelled - faith is not what Christianity is about (although it is sufficient for other religions); therefore we Christians must discern, and discernment is done by individuals or not at all.

Our disagreement is over metaphysical assumptions, not a matter of evidence; because what counts as evidence and how that evidence is weighted is a consequence of assumptions. The difference is that I know my metaphysical assumptions. I believe they are really-real, but I know that I have consciously chosen them.

By contrast, you assert your assumptions are unavoidable facts of reality; and therefore do not regard them as assumptions.

You assert that your metaphysical assumptions (e.g. Trinitarian monotheism, an 'omni' God who created ex nihilo and from outside time etc.) are intrinsic to Christianity; where as I believe that Christianity was originally independent of these metaphysical assumptions; and the Christianity lived and taught by Jesus was fitted-into philosophical assumptions which existed before Jesus (in Greek and Roman philosophy and theology). I further believe Jesus's real teaching was fitted into assumptions about the Jewish expectations of Messiah.

What Jesus actually said was apparently very simple indeed; to express and to understand - in context of that time (of course, nowadays, it is exactly the simple and clear that we cannot understand).

All this is apparent simply from reading the Fourth Gospel as if it really was what it claims to be; the account of a beloved disciple of Jesus and eye witness of his ministry, death and resurrection; and (Chapters 1-20) written shortly afterwards. No other Gospel claims such authenticity and primacy.

To regard the Fourth Gospel as merely a segment of a larger, multi-author Book, or as 'outvoted' by the Synoptics or Epistles of Paul whenever there is disagreement is an act of individual judgment - no matter how often it was endorsed by committees in the early years of the church.

The way I see it is that this is my mortal life, and I am responsible for it. I see no church that I can trust with my soul - not even close (although such institutions may have existed in the past).

Neither do *you*, in reality, trust The Church (whatever that would mean in a vast institution riven with disagreement) since you privately discern (pick and choose) among Roman Catholic authorities, teaching and interpretations all the time.

We all do; we literally cannot avoid it - and since we *do* use 'private interpretation' all the time and fundamentally; we ought to be honest and open about the fact; and choose consciously and taking responsibility.

Kristor said...

Our divergent metaphysical suppositions have no particular bearing one way or another on the strictly soteriological and scriptural matter here under discussion – bearing in mind to be sure that metaphysics has somewhat to do with everything. Neither your metaphysics nor mine help us decide whether the Passion and Atonement were crucial to the Earthly mission of Jesus.

But since you raise the topic of Greek versus Johannine approaches to metaphysics: how do you reconcile to your view that John abjured metaphysics the fact that *in the very first few verses of his Gospel* he invoked a key metaphysical notion that his educated readers have all always known is Greek – but which Philo Judaeus had a few years before insisted was first Mosaic, and thus also Hebrew – *as the fundamental **metaphysical** principle of his whole history*? John starts off the whole shebang with the immense *metaphysical* claim that Jesus *is* the Lógos; that Jesus, i.e., *is God Almighty,* who creates *everything whatsoever:* all gods, all angels, all worlds, all heavens, all hells, you name it, he creates *everything.*

The Aramaic for Lógos is Memra; the Hebrew is Davar. It’s all over the OT, wherever you see “Word of the Lord,” and in many places where you see “Lord.” Thus the Stoic Lógos was neither novel nor foreign to the Hebrews of the 1st Century; they recognized it as the Greek equivalent of a familiar concept their forefathers had deployed from the very beginning.

I could go on about the pervasively Greek milieu of 1st Century Palestine – it had been part of Magna Graecia since Alexander, Greek was a lingua franca of the whole Mediterranean littoral, Jesus quoted the Greek Septuagint from memory, the NT – like the LXX – was written in Greek for propagation to Hebrews – and to Greek God-fearers – who could not read Hebrew, and so forth. I could point out that Mosaic and Prophetic notions perfuse Pythagoras and Plato (e.g., the Forms, the demiurge). But, again, the mutual intercultural influences already ancient in John’s day have little particularly to do with the purely soteriological and scriptural argument of your post.

There is of course no alternative to discernment, and of course all interpretations must begin in the privacy of a single mind. In my own process of discernment I begin to doubt my interpretation of a topic when I find it disagrees with what lots of other better informed and more authoritative voices have said about it. When I find that my interpretation of what a man believes disagrees with what he himself has testified is true, I jettison my interpretation altogether and start over, listening more carefully to him.

If, for example, I were at first to interpret Whitehead as thinking that God is subject to time, and then I were to read him saying that God is eternal, why then I would figure that I had some work to do in order to understand him properly.

I would suggest that this is the position in which you now find yourself in arguing that John did not think that Jesus sacrificed his life to redeem us from sin. The problem you face is not just that everyone who knew Jesus at first, second or third hand and also left written records disagrees with your conclusion, but that *John himself,* in the passages I have cited, says that Jesus *did* sacrifice himself to redeem us from sin. You disagree with *every* ancient witness, *including John.* *All* of them thought that Jesus had to suffer the Passion in order to atone for our sins, and that he had done just that, intentionally and efficaciously.

According to John, Jesus himself understood his Passion as integral to his mission: John 18: 11.

NB: that Jesus sacrificed his life to redeem us from sin does not at all vitiate the point you wish to emphasize, namely that Jesus was incarnate in order to open for us a way to Heaven. That’s one of the basic tenets of mere Christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - I know I will not be able to convince you, and I don't really want to; since you seem (at least until early 2020) to have functioned pretty well with your faith as it is - although if the stark contradictions of the present situation, and present trends, continue (churches closed, mass suspended and subverted, more and more actively secular left agenda, habitual and strategic dishonesty in discourse etc.); I really can't imagine what you will do.

At that point you may need to look again at your basic assumptions.

Kristor said...

Bruce, I agree with you completely about the horrible state of the world, of the church, and of my spiritual condition. Indeed I agree with you about almost everything. But none of that pertains to whether John wrote what he wrote. He did write it. You are not going to be able to convince me that he did not mean what he wrote.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - "You are not going to be able to convince me that he did not mean what he wrote."

From my reading of the Fourth Gospel, not only did Jesus Not mean what you attribute to him; but he could not have meant that.

The meaning you attribute to the first words of the Fourth Gospel has no relation to the rest of the Gospel - which is organized around repeated assertion and explanation of who Jesus was and that Jesus brought us life eternal. I could give you my different 'understanding' of the first sentences of the Fourth Gospel, but without explanation upon explanation - this would seem arbitrary.

I regard it as essential Not to break the Fourth Gospel into verses, and seek to understand each in turn. That isn't the way it works - and is a habit/ requirement destructive of understanding. It renders something simple and coherent into something complex and paradoxical. I regard it as essential Not to interpret the Fourth Gospel in light of other (inferior) sources.

To my mind you are reading the Gospel in light of all kinds of sources of dubious intent and assumptions - such as academic (mostly secular) scholarship about history and languages and assumptions about translation; much later philosophy and theology; and of course an implicit down-grading of that Gospel to one of many scriptural texts of equal validity. Which - since the Fourth Gospel is of primary validity, and contains unique teaching - intrinsically obscures and distorts understanding.

I do not share any of these assumptions - and this is not even mentioning that I regard the universe as pluralist, God as creator but not omnipotent, creation as within time and chaos, reality as vastly polytheistic (all Men as mini-gods - sources of free agency - potential co-creators), all of God's creation as alive and conscious and in relationship etc.

I have an absolutely central role of 'intuition'/ heart thinking, at every stage; as the main 'test. I regard mortal human consciousness as changing throughout history, according to a divine destiny. etc.

What is the point of debating a few words? It is impossible. We certainly be talking past each other.

Kristor said...

The point of our debate is not I think so much for one of us to convince the other – although I do wish that I could convince you – as for our discussion to edify readers, and help them make up their own minds. But perhaps we have taken that as far as we ought.

For my own part, I would be honestly fascinated to read your explanation of how John 1:1-5 means something other than what it seems prima facie to mean. I’m sure I would learn a lot from it.

But given your derogation of the rest of the Bible and the books I have read about the mission of Jesus (most of them written by apostles and saints), and of the hermeneutic I have learned from them, which has – of course – shaped my orthodox exegesis, it would be merely just were you to provide that explanation without recourse to, or within the context of, *any other dubitable sources.* If the rest of the Bible – including the other books John wrote – is inadmissible, then so are all other texts whatever. To do that, you would have to explicate John’s Greek, as understood by a 1st Century Grecophone steeped in the religion of Israel – without citing to *any other writer whatsoever,* whether ancient or modern, orthodox or heterodox. You’d have to channel John himself.

To say which is obviously a way to point out – tongue firmly in cheek – that you are subject to the same risk of distortion and error in your interpretation as I, or anyone else. You know that, certainly. Neither of us can easily transcend the hermeneutic to which our reading has so far led our divergent exegeses. So, readers have no realistic alternative but to weigh those exegeses on their own merits, and credit the one that seems right to them, given their own hermeneutical background. They won’t need to read a lot of Mormon stuff on the one hand, or saints and apostles on the other, in order to make their judgements. They can rather just read the Prologue, then read your explanation of what John actually means by it, and decide whether that makes more sense than the traditional, orthodox prima facie meaning.