Origins Debates: God’s New Temple

I remember watching the Rugrats Hannukah special when I was younger.

That was back in the good old days–when cartoons talked about, referenced, and sometimes had whole episodes explaining to kids the meaning behind religious holidays. Sometimes you still see some attempt at honesty about religion in cartoons–a great example is Adventure Time, where characters make frequent references to “Gob/Glob/Grod/Grob,” the clear devolution of the word “God” [NOTE: I'm taking time to mention this because I can. Adventure Time is the story of the last known human, a thousand years after a nuclear war on planet Earth, living in what has become once again a world of magic, mystery, and genetic mutation. Knowledge of the past is largely lost and slang English has become the standard form of language for most of Earth's primarily non-human inhabitants. Don't be fooled by cuteness, it's a really intricate show.]

At any rate, Rugrats was my first exposure to Hannukah, and I didn’t catch on to the significance of the holiday at the time, the way most four year olds do. I took away what most kids take away from the Hannukah story–God can do really cool unexpected miraculous stuff, and wouldn’t it be neat if we saw that happen?

But Hannukah’s about a lot more–and I would argue, understanding the Hannukah story’s significance is vital to understanding the story of Jesus.

Hannukah is about what happens when God vindicates His dwelling place on earth. In the ancient worldview, heaven and earth–the abode of the gods and of men–met together and became one abode, one place, in the temple. And so the belief of all the Israelites in Jesus’ day was in fact that God literally lived in the Temple of Jerusalem and that His activity was focused around it, while also obviously extending beyond it.

And so when some foreigner polytheist comes in with his swords and his soldiers and his pagan god statue and puts it in your Temple, there are big problems.

Big problems.

Because the center of the whole world was just effectively decimated, destroyed. God’s meeting place with man has been defiled, and so the whole earth is corrupt. And in light of this, of course, the Maccabees rise up, drive out the pagan invaders, and cleanse the Temple. And after God vindicates the Maccabbean revolt with enough oil to maintain the Torah-mandated perpetually lit Menorah, the Maccabbeans become the new kings of Israel. And that’s really what the story is all about–the same passion for God to have a home on the Earth from which to rule over it and direct it, the passion that consumed David and Solomon, the two model kings for Israel’s future hopes in a Davidic king, is the substance of kingship. And that example shapes Jewish theology, such that this understanding of the Temple’s vindication is something that comes to be expected of a Messiah, a King from David’s line.

And Jesus is just one such person from David’s line, the oldest son of his family, perfectly qualified to take up that mantle. Except for this one thing, where Jesus doesn’t seem to have much attachment to the Temple in Jerusalem at all. Sure, he drives out the moneychangers with his whip, quotes scripture about how passion for God’s Temple is burning him up. Sounds pretty Messianic. Except for how really, Jesus is stopping the regularly daily flow of the sacrifices. For a few hours in Jerusalem, the Temple’s function–to be a place where God and man may meet, man may be absolved of sin, and sacrifices can be offered in worship of God, in accordance with the Torah–is null.

Why? Because Jesus is after a bigger statement than a statement about not mixing religion and money.  He’s about saying–showing, even–that the Temple in Jerusalem is no longer the ground zero of God’s creational, monarchic, redemptive activity on Earth.

He is.

The subversive message of Jesus regarding Temple life and theology was that in His person, mission, and very body, heaven and earth overlapped and interlocked, such that when He told the Pharisees He would destroy “this Temple” and build it again in three days, He was talking about Himself (John 2:19). And when Jesus rose again from the dead, that’s exactly what happened–the Temple was rebuilt. It was restored. It was vindicated.

The substance of Hannukah–the things it pointed to and meant–came to a head when God vindicated the successful military victory that Jesus of Nazareth, the rightful king of the Jews, accomplished by dying as a criminal of His own religious leaders and the foreign nation that occupied His land by raising Him bodily from the dead. The True Temple–of which the physical tabernacle in the wilderness, and the building in Jerusalem, were mere shadows–was purified and perfected, and God took up rest within Him.

And it is because of this, so thought the early Christians, that when we participate in His Body, God also takes up residence in us. The Temple is no longer a building on a hill in the Middle East–it is a living, breathing, corporate organism made up of an innumerable company of people who are the collective new ground zero for God’s creational-redemptive mission. In this sense, the ultimate Jewish hope and expectation–that when the Messiah came, God would inhabit the same space as His people completely–came true first in Jesus, according to the early Christian movement.

Origins Debates: David’s Kid

So, it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to post. Moving into college will do that.

The series that I’ve been doing is on how the Christian faith came to be, and as I mentioned in the last post, there will be a slew of posts dealing with and explicating the various Jewish expectations of the Messiah and how they came to be redefined around the person of Jesus for the early Christians. After I’ve done this, I’ll do a post or two arguing for the legitimacy of orthodox Christianity as the faith of the early Christians and the Resurrection as the source of the Christian movement.

David was the most famous King in Israel’s history. His story, two different versions of which can be found in Samuel and Chronicles, of being a young shepherd boy who is chosen by God to be king, and who spends years of his life waiting for all of that to pan out, running away from people who want to kill him.

The best place to start, then, is by noting that the Jewish expectation that the Messiah be David’s son is an expectation that he be a king. It was thought to be a given, especially since the word Messiah itself is a royal phrase, used (among other things) for someone who has had oil poured on them and been consecrated for the throne.

The first century Jews were actively looking forward to this king, not least because they had spent the previous several centuries under the heel of one empire after another. Babylon, Persia, Greece, and now, at long last, Rome. The promises that had taken them out of Egypt seemed far away, as did the one who had made them, by the time that Jesus came on the scene.

And Jesus, lest we be poor readers of scripture, did not shy away from the Royal theme. The first and fundamentally foundational message that he preaches to inaugurate his ministry says it all in Mark 1:14-15: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Therefore, turn back to God and believe in the good news.”

Jesus consistently defined his ministry in Messianic terms, taking the scriptural  descriptions of the roles of David’s promised Son and using them to describe what He himself was doing. In Luke 4, when He gets up and reads in the synagogue, Jesus proclaims, rather unapologetically, that the “Spirit of the Lord [was] upon Him, and has anointed Him” to do those things that it was promised both only that YHWH Himself would do, as well as that David’s Son, the “Branch of Jesse,” would do.

All of this to say, that Jesus was David’s son was not lost on the early Christians, and it was by no means unimportant to them. Though it commonly only gets a passing mention in our theologies, the truth is that the ministry of Jesus was seen by His disciples and the people at large as the exercise of Davidic kingship by David’s descendant. It is for this reason that the blind men shout “Son of David!” when he passes by (Luke 18:38) and when He enters the city of Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9). This is why, of course, both Matthew and Luke begin with genealogies that, among other things, link Jesus to David as his rightful heir.

Put simply, Jesus fulfilled the Messianic expectations of the early Jewish Christians because they believed him to be a verifiable member of David’s family, and thus a rightful heir to David’s throne, and thus worthy of being the God-chosen and marked out king. The twist they saw unfold before them was that, unlike Herod with his palace silks and comforts, his pomp and wealth, his armies and swords, David’s true son looked like a homeless rabbi, being the true king of His people by leading them to true worship of Israel’s God and right living before Israel’s God, by taking their punishment for their disobedience and nationalism upon Himself in the Cross. Ultimately, the twist on the Davidic Messianic expectation that Jesus pulled was by being the sort of king for which David’s heart was called reflective of God: He was a shepherd to His people (Matthew 9:36).

Origin Debates: The Messiah Remixed

In my last post, I talked about what the first century Jewish expectations of a Messiah were and why many Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah on these accounts. Today, I’m going to talk about how the early Christians understood each of these expectations and were able, as faithful Jews, to apply them satisfactorily to Jesus.

One important thing to remember before I do is that the early Christians, and (I would argue) Jesus Himself, understood Himself to be the climax of Israel’s long story, in effect, Israel in person. This is the source, actually, of the language about Jesus’ sonship to God: as the Messiah is the King of Israel, God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23), the Messiah is thus Israel in person, God’s begotten son (Psalm 2), a common belief about the relationship between kings and deities in the ancient world. God affirms the intuition, but qualifies and transforms it into something else entirely through Jesus, along with Israel’s basic expectations of what the Messiah is and what He is supposed to do.

  • A Descendant of King David: This is one of the expectations that generally remained the same for the early Christians, who at least believed that Jesus was in fact a descendant of King David (Matthew 1, Luke 3). Paul seems to have made a big deal of this Davidic ancestry, going so far as to include it as a central component of the Gospel alongside the Resurrection (Romans 1, 2 Timothy 2:8-9). The Jews believed God had chosen Abraham’s family–and specifically, David’s family within Abraham’s family–to be the means through which He would redeem and restore the world, and Jesus, in the eyes of the early Christians, fit the category.
  • Will Build/Cleanse/Restore the Temple: This happens in two ways in the New Testament: one is through the cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2) and the other the language Jesus uses to refer to Himself as the “new Temple” (Matthew 12:6).  Jesus Himself seems to have taught, and the early Christians taken note of, the fact that Jesus considered Him and His ministry to be the new meeting place between God and man, such that the reality towards which the Temple was pointing and was a temporary embodiment of had arrived, rendering the Temple complex itself a sign post that had served its purpose. Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and rebuilding of the Temple is thus primarily about His status as the new Temple, and this was a sign, in the eyes of the early Christians, of His Messiahship.
  • Wins a Decisive Victory Against the Evil Pagan Power: This is one of the most significant ways in which Jesus turns common Jewish expectations upside down with regard to the Messiah, seeing as He does not once intimate any sort of desire to lead a military coup against the Romans. In fact, instead, he dies as a Roman criminal. And yet, the New Testament considers this to be Jesus’ decisive victory against the idolatrous powers of pagan evil, because His death on the cross serves as the victory blow to the larger problem behind idolatrous pagan powers: sin (Romans 5:8, 1 Corinthians 15:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18). Jesus’ humiliating criminal’s death, in being the means by which God defeats sin once and for all, is consequently the event in which, paradoxically, God leads the human powers captive like vanquished enemies of war (Colossians 2:15). The early Christians thus saw Jesus’ responsibility as Messiah to defeat evil as being accomplished in His death on the cross, which is consequently the source of theological focus on the Cross’ saving work.
  • Facilitates the Return from Exile: Jesus did not bring back the Lost Tribes nor any of the Jews who had been scattered throughout the nations. Instead, the early Christians speculated that, just as the problem plaguing Israel was not the idolatrous pagan nations, though they were the instruments of evil, but evil itself, the true exile–expressed in the exile of the ten tribes–was in fact the exile of sin and death which the whole human race faced, and the return from exile that the Prophets looked forward to was in fact a larger return from that exile, which was accomplished in Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead.
  • World Peace: Jesus openly admitted that he had not come to bring peace, but a metaphorical sword of division to the earth (Matthew 10:34). The early Christians, obviously familiar with the promises in the scriptures of the peace the Messiah would bring, and working with an inaugurated eschatology which saw the Messianic Age as already here and not yet at the same time, hoped that the Messiah would return to judge the world and bring to it peace at His parousia.
  • Leads the world in worship of Israel’s God: This expectation also underwent little transformation with the early Christians, who affirmed its basic hope, with the corollary that the world would worship Israel’s God in and through Jesus, His Son and chosen Messiah.
  • Facilitates the Resurrection and the New Creation: The early Christians supposed that God, in raising Jesus from the dead in an incorruptible physical body, had begun the new creation ahead of time in the present, and that through participation in his Body, the Church, they were able to participate in and enjoy the status of new creation.

In coming posts, I’ll be looking at all of these in more detail as we seek to ascertain how the early Christian faith was able to come to the theological conclusions it did about who Jesus was and what that means for how it began as a whole.

Origins Debates: Jewish Expectations of the Messiah

I remember once watching a debate between a particularly well known Messianic Jew, Michael Brown, and Rabbi Immanuel Shochet, on whether or not Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Needless to say, it got nasty.

Since then, I’ve watched a few of Brown’s public debates, most of which are from a long time ago and largely reflect, it seems, the tensions that surrounded the Messianic movement after its heyday in the 60′s and 70′s with regard to Jewish communities in America and Israel. Even as a Christian who is happy to see anyone come to Jesus, it is understandable why this reaction took place: Jewish communities felt as though their young were being indoctrinated, their faithful were falling away, and that the line distinguishing Judaism and Christianity–a line that had been purposefully drawn in the first and second century by Jews without a homeland in need of unity and not division and continues to be meticulously maintained–was becoming blurred.

Anyway, each time I watch these debates, I’m stricken by lots of things, but the one thing that these debates forced me to think more about is this: Jewish expectations of the Messiah have been roughly standard since the initial development of the theology behind it, and first century expectations were by and large similar to modern ones. Jesus and his followers would have grown up and professed themselves faithful first century Jews, completely familiar with Jewish conceptions of who the Messiah was and what He was supposed to do, and in their proclamation of Jesus’ Messiahship, would have had to interact in some way with that theology. In other words, from a historical point of view, as first century Jews, the early followers of Jesus, in their proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, had to in some way interact with or account for common Jewish expectations of the Messiah, whether by affirming, developing, qualifying, or openly denying them. Thus, in conversation about how the Christian faith began and what constitutes the most likely explanation for why it began, it’s important to understand the climate of Jewish thought from which the uniquely Christian claim–i.e., that Jesus was the Messiah–arose, and the various expectations that came along with someone who was the Messiah. [NOTE: I highly recommend N.T. Wright's Simply Jesus, from which this list is inspired, particularly the chapter "Battle and Temple."]

  • A Descendant of King David: This is the fairly standard expectation, that the Messiah would be a king descended from David’s line. That there were other claimants who perhaps could not trace that lineage suggests that this expectation was perhaps in dispute in early messianic (pre-Christian) Judaism. Though the Gospels Matthew and Luke proclaim Davidic ancestry for Jesus, many Jewish scholars remain unconvinced by these accounts/make arguments about improper inheritance in the genealogical records (i.e., is Jesus a descendant through mother, father, etc.).
  • Will Build/Cleanse/Restore the Temple: As David’s descendant, the Messiah is suppose to build the Temple (like Solomon), cleanse it (like Judah Maccabee, one “messianic” though non-Davidic claimant to an extent), or rebuild it if it is in need (one way, for example, that Herod the Great attempted to legitimize his rule to the Jews). Failure to do this–in fact, outright rejection of the Temple system–is one thing that many Jewish theologians have indicted Jesus for.
  • Wins a Decisive Victory Against the Evil Pagan Power: Like David, the Conquering King, or Judah Maccabee, the Messiah was expected by and large to be a warrior king who would free Israel from her oppressors and begin the campaign of conquering the world’s nations to establish God’s Israelite Empire over the entire world. This is why groups like the Zealots existed in Israel, stirring up trouble, stabbing Centurions with knives, and starting rebellions here and there where they could: they were convinced that God was sending them a military leader and that by getting the fighting started he would come earlier. Though the Pharisees did not embrace military violence to advance the Messiah’s coming, they nevertheless had more or less the same figure in mind. This is one of the main reasons, many scholars suspect, why Jesus was ultimately rejected (and why, N.T. Wright speculates, Judas may have ultimately betrayed Jesus): Jesus’ teaching emphasized non-violent resistance and love-for-the-other, and it was becoming increasingly clear that though Jesus obviously considered himself the Messiah and was doing things that rightfully the Messiah should do, he was not going to take up the sword against Rome.
  • Facilitates the Return from Exile: To this day, one of the major Jewish claims as to why Jesus cannot be the Messiah is the widespread dispersion of Israelite and specifically Jewish people across the world. Drawing on texts like Deuteronomy 30, Isaiah 11:11-12, Jeremiah 29 (particularly verse 14), and Ezekiel 20:41-42, it came to be expected that the Messiah would be the instrument through whom God would re-gather the tribes of Israel in the land. Together with the expectation that the Messiah would be a military leader who would defeat the pagan oppressors of the people, the longing for the Messiah became deeply tied to the longing for the people to be securely and permanently planted in the Land.
  • World Peace: The Messiah will reign over the nations and make peace between them. This is often another major reason why most Jews don’t consider Jesus to be the Messiah: not only did he not take up the sword against Rome in order to establish a military kingdom, but because he hasn’t done this, the peace between the nations promised to be a part of the messianic age has not yet occurred(Isaiah 11:6-9).
  • Leads the world in worship of Israel’s God: The Messiah will, as king of the world, unite the world in the singular worship of Israel’s God and observance of Torah. This is another reason many Jews reject Jesus, because they don’t feel as though this has happened, though there are some Jews who see Christianity as a positive thing for the Gentiles, as it spreads monotheistic and particularly Jewish morality and ethics to non-Jews. [NOTE: this last bullet point is updated from the original list.]
  • Facilitates the Resurrection and the New Creation: It was and continues to be expected by Jewish people that when the Messiah comes, the Resurrection of the Dead will occur and all of creation will be renewed. Of course, the central Christian claim is that in Jesus, both the Resurrection and the New Creation have happened, unexpectedly, ahead of everyone else, in Jesus’ own person.

These are just a few, but I would argue the main, Jewish expectations of the Messiah. In my next post, I’ll try to show how the followers of Jesus–rather than ignoring or departing from these expectations–transformed them in light of their encounter with the crucified and risen Jesus.

Origins Debates: How Did the Christian Faith Start?

So lately, I’ve been involved in all sorts of conversations about Christian Origins.

Which is an increasingly more interesting and popular topic in our culture, where questions, doubts, conspiracies, and skepticisms large and small about how the Christian faith came to be are everywhere. Theologians, historians, novelists, laypeople, and unbelievers alike each have their own particular theory. Even the person who claims to “just believe scripture” and what scripture says is spouting a particular theory on this very fundamental question.

If you don’t believe me, just go on the Internet sometime. At the same time you’re reading an N.T. Wright article on how Jesus understood his own vocation, you can read some nameless vigilante’s possibly-thought-out articulation of how Jesus was really an alien or just a very nice story someone made up to embody some larger principle that may or may not exist.

The funny thing is, the fact that we’re talking about this at all is unbelievably unlikely.

In Acts 5, the apostles are on trial before the Sanhedrin, and the Jewish religious leaders are trying to figure out what to do with these Jews who are preaching to the people that this guy they killed a few weeks earlier was actually the Messiah. This isn’t the first time they’ve been before the court for this, and the apostles have openly told the Sanhedrin that they will continue to preach in Jesus’ name regardless of what men tell them to do. So they’re sort of at wit’s end, and the idea of killing them is looking pretty good, until Gamaliel stands up.

Gamaliel was a famous Rabbi that is still looked to by Rabbinic Jews today for his wisdom and example. He was a staunch believer in nonviolence, so the Talmud tells us, and in verse 34, Gamaliel stands up and reminds his peers that this Jesus lot isn’t the first group of Jews to think that they’ve found the Messiah. And he starts listing names. Theudas. Judas the Galilean. The story, Gamaliel says, is the same every time: they claim to be somebody, their movement gains some traction, people start following.

And then they get killed, implicitly, we assume, by the Romans, and all of their followers scatter. And because this same story has happened time and time again, where failed messianic movements end up folding in on themselves, not needing anyone else to come in and do the dirty work, Gamaliel suggests to the Sanhedrin to do nothing about it. “For if this plan or this work is of men, it will be overthrown,” so reasons Gamaliel.

“But if it is of God,” he solemnly continues, “you will not be able to overthrow them; what’s more, you might be fighting against God.”

There are a few facts about the Christian faith that few credible voices question or argue about. One is that Jesus was a historical person. He built a movement that can be certifiably called messianic. He launched a ministry as a Jewish rabbi. He was ultimately killed by the Romans and the Jewish religious leaders for what, to them, looked like a messianic claim, which was  an intrinsically political claim to be the rightful King of the Jews. In short, no one argues that Jesus was killed.

And if that’s where the story ends…then it is astronomically unlikely that we’re talking about all of this.

Theudas died, and Judas died too. So did Simon bar Giora and Simon bar Kochba and the Egyptian Prophet. And that’s why, logically speaking, we don’t see any of their followers today. The people who followed them knew, implicitly, that the story ended when they ended.

So when it comes to the question of Christian Origins, there’s a reason everyone and their mother has a theory: it’s an incredibly unlikely phenomenon that a movement started by a guy who simply died, and then nothing else, no matter how great, no matter how beloved, not only survived given all of its contemporaries that didn’t, but that it has survived as long as it has. The distinctly Christian claim is that the reason we didn’t is because Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story, and I will argue, in our next post, why I find this to be the most likely explanation for why there are followers of Jesus and not of Theudas.

Discipleship as Theodicy, part 3: Theodicy is an Eschatology Thing

So, as I’m learning how to do this blogging thing, there’s stuff that I’m still figuring out.

One, that I was beginning to suspect myself, is to try and condense these posts slightly more. My first two posts were, admittedly, not the sort of “I’ll-sit-down-and-read-this-real-quick” sort of thing that lots of blogs are good for, and it would probably be better to dip my toes in water before just jumping in. (He said, writing his third post ever on one of the most controversial ideas in the history of theology).

Over the past several days, there have been a series of really good comments and conversation between me and a few non-believing cyber-friends here on the blog on the concept of theodicy, which has led me to this post, where I intend to solidify my viewpoint and condense it a little better than I have the last two times I’ve written here.

Put simply, theodicy is ultimately an issue of eschatology. God admits several times to being responsible for the existence of evil in scripture (Isaiah 45:7 being an oft-cited example), and Satan–the one responsible for tempting man, for murder, theft, and destruction (John 10:10)–is a member of God’s divine court, who God permits and restrains from working in the world (Job 1-2), and God who is ultimately blamed for Satan’s actions (Job 2:3, Job 42:11). Scripture is completely aware that it is God who is ultimately responsible for evil’s existence in the world, yet refrains from indicting him for it or leveling accusation against him for evil, because God promises ultimately to judge the world. This is why Paul can proclaim with confidence in Romans 8:18 that, in fact, the “future glory” of the age to come can’t be compared with the “current sufferings” of living in this age.

But Christianity nevertheless presumes an inaugurated eschatology. The New Testament assumes an eschatology that is already–the new creation has already begun in and through Jesus’ resurrection, is already embodied in his assembly of disciples and the new humanity they share in through him and the renewed image of God they reflect–but is also not yet–the resurrection of everything else hasn’t happened yet, the final judgment has not yet occurred, the world has not been completely renewed yet. Though Satan will ultimately be bound and judged and permanently restrained from work (as per Revelation 20), his works have been destroyed in and through Jesus’ ministry and death (1 John 3:8), and his works continue to be destroyed, along with his authority to tempt and accuse human beings, when his disciples carry forth his kingdom mission through preaching, healing, and casting out demons (Luke 10:18).

Thus, discipleship to Jesus functions as a living theodicy, because it does in the here and now what the final judgment will do in the eschaton and shows that God has been, is, and will be dealing with evil fully and thoroughly. Following Jesus–participating in His Cross, sharing life as a member of His Body, practicing the kingdom in every element of life–embodies in the here and now what God will ultimately do in the end of the age.  It is through the preaching, prayer, worship, love, social justice, forgiveness, kindness, joy, fasting, creativity, and personal and community relationships of the Church that God is, here and now, dealing with evil, albeit in a limited way because of the limited nature of human beings, but this is consistent with God’s consistent desire shown throughout scripture to work with and through man, not without him (a great example is Genesis 18, when God is contemplating destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, but decides to pass it by Abraham first).

This is not an exhaustive definition of the Christian approach to theodicy, but it is indeed the focus of what I have been arguing constitutes the heart of Christian theodicy, as Irenaeus and Leibniz after him argued: namely, evil is a temporary part of a fundamentally good world that God made that God permits to exist to further His purpose but has always been in the process of dealing with. I don’t yet know if I’ll continue with this subject in future posts, but if I do, it will be building off of this one.

Discipleship as Theodicy, Part 2: The Superiority of the Irenaean Theodicy

In our last post, I argued at minimal length that discipleship to Jesus is part of God’s answer to the problem of evil, and we talked briefly about the two main paths that have been taken theologically on theodicy–the question of how there can be a righteous, all-powerful and all-loving God with the existence of such extensive evil, sin, pain, and suffering in the world–namely, that of Irenaeus on the one hand and Augustine on the other. Today, I will argue for why I believe Irenaeus’ argument to be superior to Augustine’s, for three distinct reasons.

Before I list those reasons, it’s important to note once more that all questions of the problem of evil and theodicy inevitably come back to a question of why evil exists in the world, which inevitably comes back to questions of primeval history–of how God chose to make the world and specifically, the agents through whom He desires to govern the world, human beings. Thus, to speak of Irenaeus’ theodicy or Augustine’s theodicy is also to speak of their conception of the sort of man that God created. As I mentioned last time, Dr. Peter Enns has a helpful article in which he provides a link for John Schneider’s article on this subject, and I encourage everyone to go check it out. In short, Augustine sees Adam as a superman (the image evangelicalism is fond of), while Irenaeus sees Adam as innocent but morally undeveloped, i.e., a work in progress.

Thus, that in mind, here are my three reasons for supporting an Irenaean view of creation and theodicy over against Augustine.

  1. Irenaeus’ view of man and theodicy lines up more with the text of Genesis 1-3 and the Hebrew worldview that is present there. One of the central elements of Augustine’s narrative involves creation as a perfect invention of God, with man as the apex of creation, physically and morally perfect. This view doesn’t hold up under the scrutiny of the text or under the worldview that guided the authorship of scripture. The Hebrew worldview, as Rob Bell notes at some length in Velvet Elvis, does not view the world as perfect–rather, it is exactly as it appears in Genesis 1: fundamentally a good creation by Israel’s God, but a creation that is good because God has brought order to it, and thus a creation God seeks to bring more order to in and through his human image-bearers. This seems to be the intention of commanding Adam to “cultivate” the Garden (Genesis 2:15): the idea that through Adam and his project of pruning and bringing order to the creation, God would actually be bringing creation to a greater state of order, and thus a greater state of “good.” In other words, creation is an ongoing, trajectory process, and God creates human beings in the middle of that ongoing process to be partners in the process. Irenaeus’ view is superior because it makes provision for this idea: human beings, like the world in which they live, are not static supermen whose fall should be nigh impossible, but rather are, like the world around them, created with potential that has to be shaped, immortality and maturity that can 0nly be procured through obedience to and dependence upon God Himself. Furthermore, Irenaeus’ view fits in with the rhetorical point the Adam story would’ve made in later Israel’s regular reading of and commentary on the story: obedience to Torah, God’s law, is to eat from the tree of life and results in blessing and life in the age to come; disobedience to God leads to exile and death.
  2. Irenaeus’ view lends itself to evolutionary theory. One of the major reasons that many evangelical Christians do not accept evolution is because of Augustine’s Adam, because, as it were, evolution has little room for a primordial superman from whom the rest of the human race was descended. Of course, other Christians that would be considered evangelical, or at least who have influenced evangelicalism throughout church history, have found helpful ways of accepting evolution and maintaining Orthodox faith, such as C.S. Lewis (David Williams has a brilliant series on Lewis’s relationship with evolution, which I recommend you read all of, here.) I, for one, accept evolutionary theory, for a number of reasons that we don’t have time for here–very briefly, I find it to be a.) congruent with the nature of our God in his infinite patience and infinitely complex design, and b.) to be the most convincing argument logically for origins, and thus I c.) recognize the need to reassess my understanding of the value or sort of truth contained in texts like Genesis 1-11 that describe creation in terms that don’t permit for evolution. Irenaeus’ Adam, unlike Augustine’s Adam, fits quite well into that mold, as evolutionary theory does indeed leave us with a human being who is morally undeveloped but nevertheless innocent, and depends heavily on that trajectory imagery of creation I mentioned earlier. [Note: I say "evolutionary theory leaves us with" something. What I mean is that God, particularly Israel's God, in and through the power of His Word and Spirit, was interactive and involved in biological processes on earth to bring about the particular creature that we now today recognize as human.]

This is essentially why I think that Irenaeus was right and that his theology for defending the goodness of God in light of evil makes the most sense: i.e., God made a fundamentally good world that included human beings as the creatures with and through whom God desired to bring creation to a new level of goodness, but who needed themselves to develop their potential for bearing God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28). To connect this to a standpoint of evolutionary creationism, which is one of my two main reasons for endorsing Irenaeus: I would theorize that God’s good world included the process of evolution, which depended in part on the evil of natural violence and suffering, and guided evolutionary processes to human beings so that through them, God might bring the creation to a new level of reality. Humans were created (through millions of years of God-guided adaptation and natural selection of hominid species) to bear God’s Image and represent Him as kings and queens on the earth, and thus with the potential to fulfill this God-ordained role for them: however, humankind ultimately failed to obey God and for this reason continued on in the cycle of violence and death in creation, though with the now-added evil of sin. God thus called Abraham and his descendants, Israel, to be the community in whom God redeemed the world by continuing on with the original human project, which Israel also failed to uphold and do.

Enter Jesus and his talmidim.

In this context, discipleship to Jesus functions as God’s answer to the problem of evil in the world because it is to live according to the pattern by which God originally envisioned human beings, and thus the Cross of Jesus justifies God despite the existence of evil because it shows that God has always been in the process of dealing with evil, the cure for which he had already made in the creation of man himself. To repeat: God created man to be the creature through whom he further redeemed the fundamentally good but still potential-filled created world, and discipleship to Jesus–participating in His Cross in every element of life–is the means by which we participate in the ultimate theodicy wrought on the Cross, because it is the means by which we are able to live the way God always intended human beings to live.

God is just, and good, and loving, and everything else we claim about him, then, despite the existence of evil, because evil is something He has always been in the process of dealing with and working against, albeit in a limited way (shall we say a self-limited way) due to his desire to deal with evil through the human creatures whom He originally made to deal with it through. The question, then, is emphatically not, “How can God be good when the world is so evil?” but, rather, “How is it that I am contributing to the existence of evil in the world, and how is it that I can stop and start doing something else entirely?”

And this answers, I think, the problem of evil as it is apparent in the Christian tradition through the problem of sin–i.e., co-crucifixion with Jesus (discipleship to him) in every part of our beings is the means by which we are declared in the right and, coincidentally, by which we participate in that action through which God was faithful (and shown to be in the right all along)–i.e., Jesus’ death on the Cross. It is thus in our discipleship that the focal point of all theodicy–the Crucifixion–continues to be made plain to the world.

I went a little past where I intended to, and there’s still a little more to cover on this topic. Thanks for keeping up (or attempting to). Please discuss!

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