Thursday, September 25, 2008

"The Cross is Our Only Theology"

Book Review: Evil and The Justice of God by N.T. Wright, (InterVarsity Press, 2006)

In his justly acclaimed book Luther's Theology of the Cross, Alister McGrath reminds us of Luther's theological motto that "the Cross is our only theology". This does not mean, of course, that theology speaks of no subject but the Cross but that the Cross and what God accomplished there is the vital center of all truly Christian theology. All that Christians have to say about God must finally be grounded in the revelation of the Cross, the revelation of God's absolute justice and absolute mercy.
N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham and New Testament scholar, lives by Luther's motto in this book. Wright is clearly aware of the problem posed for Christan faith by human suffering and injustice but he does not want us to treat "the problem of evil" as a philosophical puzzle to be "resolved" by either subtle metaphysical speculations or by an impoverished skepticism. Instead, Wright wants to look at the problem of human suffering in the light of the suffering of God on the Cross. He is aware that there are various inadequate Christian treatments of the Cross, treatments which range of the tendency of liberal protestantism to sideline the Cross to the tendency of evangelicalism to interpret the Cross as primarily a means by which God grants forgiveness to individuals. Wright argues that Scripture views that Cross as being at the very center of God's redemptive purposes, purposes which result in the complete liberation of creation from evil (along the lines of Romans 8)
Wright devotes an entire chapter to examining the treatment of evil in Scripture, reading it as the narrative of God's redemptive purposes for all creation. In this context, evil and suffering appear not simply as "problems" but as things which raise questions about two fundamental Christian affirmations, God's faithfulness and the goodness of creation. Wright reminds us that the narrative that is Scripture is not intended to simply provide us with information so that we can "solve the problem of evil". Rather, Scripture tells us about what God has done, is doing and will do to overcome evil. Perhaps one of the most surprising things it tells us is that God has chosen not to overcome evil by a mere act of will but, rather, has chosen to work through human beings and not around them. Most discussion of "the problem of evil" assume that God really should have made creation an evil-proof utopia or that he should remove it from creation instantaneously from creation by an act of almighty will. But, Wright notes, Scripture tells a very different story, a more complicated story. God begins his dealing with evil by calling Abraham and Israel into covenant relationship, a relationship which reaches its fulfillment in the one person who embodies both the covenant and the human beings who are intended to keep it--Jesus Christ. God acts from within his creation to redeem and liberate it--he does not demolish it in order to save but but protects its integrity by acting within it. God's decision to work through creation and not around it means that the work of redemption takes time and we may mistakenly interpret the length of time it takes as a lack of concern on God's part.
Atonement (the theology of the meaning of Jesus' suffering and death on the Cross) is somewhat out of fashion in some circles. Some have contended that atonement is a small concern in the New Testament and is almost foreign to the gospel narratives. Wright makes a substantial case against this view. When we read them carefully as organic wholes we discover, according to Wright, that the "Gospels tell the story of Jesus' death as the story of how the downward spiral of evil finally finally hit bottom with the violent and bloody execution of this man, this prophet who announced God's kingdom" (p. 83). What happens on the Cross is that Jesus takes upon himself the full results of the human failure to carry out our vocation to bear the image of God in the world. Death is the ultimate result of evil because evil is far more than immoral acts; evil is anti-life and anti-creation and as such can not create but can only destroy. On the Cross, God allows evil (in its political, religious and spiritual manifestations) to do its worst to his Son and, thus, to exhaust itself. In the resurrection of Jesus, we see that God's new creation has already begun, that evil is a spent force and that God has triumphed over it. With the resurrection of Jesus it now become possible to anticipate a world without sin, death and evil because in Jesus this world is a present fact.
But, Wright reminds us, Christians are not without a vocation in the realization of this new future: "It isn't that the cross has won the victory, so there's nothing more to be done. Rather, the cross has won the victory as a result of which there are now redeemed human beings getting ready to act as God's wise agents, his stewards, constantly worshiping their Creator and constantly, as a result, being equipped to reflect his image into his creation, to bring his wise and healing order to the world, putting the world to rights under his just and gentle rule" (p. 139). Deliverance from evil does not happen without something happening to us.
Wright does not claim to have solved the "problem of suffering". He helps us to see that short of the kingdom of God we will always have questions about the goodness of creation. What Wright does claim to have done is to have placed the issues of suffering and evil in the proper context, the context of the Cross which, as Luther insisted, is our only theology.

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