Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Peril of Modernizing Jesus 2. The Big Tent Revival Jesus

Evangelicals have not been immune from the temptation to construct a Jesus in their own image. The Jesus I was nurtured on as a young believer was more of a theological symbol for atonement theology than a historical person with a historical message. What was really important was that Jesus had a sin-less birth and died a sin-bearing death – his ministry was merely for the purpose of getting ready for Calvary. Resultantly, the Jesus sometimes espoused in the evangelical tradition often looks like a travelling evangelist who proclaims his deity, announces his intent to die for sins, proffers some stringent moral advice for the interim, and bids himself adieu as he moves on to the next crusade. I awoke from my dogmatic and pietistic slumbers when I read Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God p. 14!!! At this point I left the ‘Matrix’ and entered into a wonderful and exciting world of Gospel and historical-Jesus studies that I have found far more enriching, invigorating, refreshing, and challenging than any of the caricatures of the ‘Big Tent Revival Jesus’ (BTRJ).

However, the BTRJ model persists. As much as I like Robert Stein’s books (esp. his Luke commentary and monograph on the Synoptic Problem) I think he produces a quote indicative of the BTRJ:

Whereas Israel longed for the coming of the Messiah to restore its political fortunes and free it from its enemies, Jesus saw Israel’s need differently. What Israel needed was the once-and-for-all sacrifice that would solve the deeper and more important need of its relationship with God. How could human forgiveness be achieved? And how could the righteous standing before God resulting from this forgiveness be lived out in daily life? Jesus saw that this was the greatest need facing the people of Israel. As a result, he understood his messianic mission as bringing about the new covenant promised by the prophets through the sacrificial offering of himself. With this would come the answer to Israel’s and humanity’s greatest need – forgiveness, which allowed sinful people to have fellowship with a holy God (Jesus the Messiah, 151-52).

What's wrong here:

(1) Stein eclipses the significance of Jesus’ mission to Israel (cf. Mk. 7.27; Mt. 10.5b-6; 15.24; 19.28) by perceiving Jesus’ vocation as being principally to create the conditions necessary for universal atonement. I would regard the prediction of Jesus’ suffering and vindication as authentic, but on this view Jesus’ ministry is abstracted from the social and political climate of first century Palestine and from the hopes of the Jewish people. Jesus’ announcement of a ‘gospel’ (or more likely its Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent bsr) has as its background the programmatic announcement that the day of national restoration is dawning (Is. 40:9-11; 41:26-27; 52:7-10; 61:1; Pss. Sol. 11:1-4) which means a new exodus, a regathering of the twelve tribes, a righteous Davidic king, judgment for those who oppress the Jewish nation, vindication for Israel, and a new covenant etc. The death of Jesus must be coordinate with his mission of national restoration or else the mission to Israel is reduced to a salvation-historical bottleneck that must be somehow traversed before the real mission of going to the cross can follow.

(2) Stein moves too quickly to atemporal theological categories. Stein is quick to point out the universal significance of Jesus’ death as making available the reconciliation of humanity to God. Theologically speaking the notion is entirely legitimate, I do not dispute it, but Stein bypasses the vehicle which brings it. According to Paul, Luke, Matthew and John, the inclusion of the Gentiles and the prospect of eternal life are possible only via the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the story of Israel. In the end it is a transformed Israel that transforms the world.

(3) I think there are two bad implications of this view. (a). It reduces Christology to Soteriology. (b) It contributes to the evangelical bias of privileging those portions of Scripture which speaks of salvation as the deliverance of souls from eternal judgment when in fact the word sozō most frequently denotes escape from death (see Marshall, Luke, 245).


J. B. Hood said...

Thanks Mike. As a former BTRJ fan, I can relate to this. I'm not sure when I cam out of my BTRJ fog (NTW helped for sure), but it had to do with realizing that almost none of the big, white, wealthy churches I knew in the South (USA) were ever hearing about race, poverty, justice, mercy--the weightier matters of the law. They were also hearing nothing about righteousness, except for a hyper-Lutheran view of verses like Matthew 5:20.

1) I'd like to amplify your second point by noting that stripping Jesus from the story of Israel (Scot McKnight will like that point) contributes to an individualisitc religion that preaches on "my personal testimony of what Jesus did for me" rather than preaching "the Story of the God who is fixing the Cosmos, a Story that has overtaken me and the Christian community of which I'm apart." I know the former is important, but i'm pretty sure it's the main thing, and I doubt it's even close.

Milton Stanley said...

Well said. I'm teaching Acts on Wednesday nights at my church, and your post helps explain Luke's emphasis in the early chapters on the Davidic nature of Jesus' lordship.

Jonny said...

I say a loud Amen