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Colossian Blog

Displaying all posts by Andy Saur.
January 9, 2019 | Andy Saur
Glory always fades, just ask Moses about the bag over his head. Or inquire with anyone whose fifteen minutes have come and gone. A star may rise in the east, but sooner or later it will set in the west. It’s been said that famous people die in threes; perhaps this collective dimming eases us more gently into the night. The Magi also traveled as a trio, played their gig in Bethlehem then dissolved into the pages of history. But they didn’t return the same way they came. Maybe that’s true of us all as we journey from darkness to darkness. We find a different way home or a new home all together— one beyond the horizon, beyond this business of day and night, rising and setting.   AJ (Andy) Saur is The Colossian Forum’s poet laureate and matchless Executive Coordinator.
Growing Virtuous Youth through an Origins Symposium
February 22, 2017 | Andy Saur
Growing Virtuous Youth through an Origins Symposium
Students at Front Range Christian School in Littleton, Colorado prepped for months to participate in the all-day Origins Symposium that was held at their school in late January. They met in their weekly small groups to discuss faith-and-science questions, worked through teachFASTly activities in their Bible and science classes, and registered for breakout sessions on topics as varied as “How would a young-earth creationist explain ape man fossils?” to “Is it appropriate to go to the Bible for scientific truth?” But even with that preparation, many were unprepared for the experience of listening to TCF partners Darrel Falk and Todd Wood explain their different perspectives on human origins. How is it that two faithful Christians could disagree so significantly on such an important issue and still care for each other? Who had the “right answer” to the origins question? When teachers heard their students voicing these questions, they knew the symposium was on the right track. As Kevin Taylor, director of the school’s Veritas et Caritas Institute, explains: “We want our community to be able to speak their convictions with boldness and courage, but also be able to hold love as part of the process too.” To know one’s convictions, a person has to understand both what he or she is moving toward and away from. Even as the students began forming their own opinions on the origins topic through what they learned in preparation for and at the symposium, they also started developing an equally important skillset of holding in tension their growing opinion on the issue with their care for a Christian brother or sister who holds a different viewpoint. This hard work of forming thoughtful disciples of Christ is at the heart of The Colossian Forum’s mission and we were delighted to partner with Front Range Christian School to continue this work among its student body through this symposium. And we whole-heartedly echo the words of Kevin Taylor: “When the world looks at the church, I’d like them to see it appealing because we behave virtuously and civilly in a world so polarized.”
What about Paul? Original Sin and Paul’s Letter to the Romans
December 23, 2015 | Andy Saur
What about Paul? Original Sin and Paul’s Letter to the Romans
What about Paul? Original Sin and Paul's Letter to the Romans Joel Green Are we sinners because we sin, or do we sin because we are sinners? This question, torn from the pages of many an ordination exam, sharply focuses the debate around original sin. A Jewish text from the late first or early second century opts for the first answer: we are sinners because we sin, for “each of us has become our own Adam” (2 Baruch 54:19). The second answer belongs to the traditional doctrine of original sin; as Article VII of The United Methodist Articles of Religion puts it, “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam …, but it is the corruption of the nature of every [person].” Older arguments against this conventional view tended to focus on the theological and ethical problem that God might hold all people responsible for the disobedience of a single ancestor, Adam. More recent discussion has centered on the doctrine’s problematic reading of our evolutionary history. Traditional readings of “the Fall” seem to flounder on biological evidence against the idea of a single, original couple, and against the idea that human history might be divided into two eras, pre- and post-Fall. Those of us interested in the significance of scriptural authority on this question often wonder, what about Paul? Indeed, Rom. 5-7 is ground zero for this discussion. A careful reading of Paul urges contemporary readers to rethink our notion of “sin.” “Sin,” we often think, refers to individual acts of disobedience, missing the mark, and so on. Paul can use language that supports this view, but his concern is less than we might imagine with “sinful acts.” Consider, for example, how rarely the phrase “forgiveness of sins” appears in those letters attributed to Paul – only twice, in Eph. 1:7 and Col. 1:14. As Rom. 5-7 clarifies, for Paul “sin” is more a power from which humans need to be liberated than individual, wrongful deeds for which humans require clemency. It is Sin, with a capital “s.” In Rom. 5-7, Sin is allocated a surprisingly robust agency. Sin “entered the world” (5:12), where it now exercises the broad-shouldered muscle of a slave master. Earlier, Paul had introduced sin’s work, opening the body of his letter in Rom. 1:18-32 with an argument that would lead to the conclusion that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (3:23). In Paul’s diagnosis there, “sins,” identified as human impiety and wrongdoing, arise from “sin,” a general disposition to refuse to honor God as God and to give him thanks. Romans 1:18-32 sketches Paul’s analysis of the human situation understood corporately, as God hands the human family over to their own desires and distortions (1:24, 26, 28). Accordingly, returning now to Rom. 5-7, humans are “controlled by Sin” (6:6), the aim of Sin is to “rule your bodies, to make you obey their cravings (6:12), people present “parts of their body to Sin as weapons to do wrong” (6:13), and people are enslaved to Sin (6:16). The baptized were formerly ruled by Sin, but are now liberated from its dominion (6:17-18, 20, 22). Paul sketches the basis of the transformed life of Christ-followers by contrasting the deeds of Adam and of Jesus Christ in Rom. 5:12-21. In fact, he brackets this section of the letter with phrases that document humanity’s changed situation: “Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin … so also grace will rule through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:12, 21). Romans 5:12 is the pivotal text, since here we have what might be regarded as Paul’s reflection on the effects of Gen. 3: “Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, since everyone has sinned.” With this compact argument, Paul grounds universal human mortality in his recognition of the universality of sin, itself grounded in a phenomenological observation – “because all sinned” – which he interprets theologically in relation to Adam’s sin. How this is so merits close attention. On the one hand, through Adam and from Adam, Sin entered the world, death ruled, many people died, judgment came, many people were made sinners, and Sin ruled in death (Rom. 5:12-21). On the other hand, death came to everyone because everyone sinned. We might say, then, both that Sin (with an upper-case “s,” a malevolent, enslaving power) entered the world on account of Adam, and that Adam’s disobedience set in motion a chain of effects, one sin leading to the next, not because Sin was an essential constituent of the human condition but because Adam served as the pattern all humanity followed in his sinfulness. Paul thus underscores the solidarity of the entire human family in sin – first, because Adam’s disobedience introduces Sin as a hegemonic force in the world; and second, because everyone follows Adam in sinning. Paradoxically, therefore, human sinfulness is for the apostle a sign of both human helplessness and culpability with the result that, without exception, all humanity stands in need of the life available in Christ.   Suggested reading Mark E. Biddle, Missing the Mark: Sin and Its Consequences in Biblical Theology (Abingdon, 2005). Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Westminster John Knox, 2007), chap. 9. Rowan A. Greer, “Sinned We All in Adam’s Fall?” in The Social World of the First Christians, ed. L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough, 382-94 (Fortress, 1995).   This piece first appeared on the Catalyst blog and has been reposted with permission. [div id="blockquote"]This study asks a pressing question: If humanity emerged from non-human primates—as genetic, biological, and archaeological evidence seems to suggest—then what are the implications for Christian theology’s traditional account of origins, including both the origin of humanity and the origin of sin? The integrity of the church’s witness requires that it constructively address this difficult question. This three-year project is designed to help the church wrestle with the theological implications of contemporary scientific models. The starting point for this project is not one of advocacy for a particular position, but a respectful engagement of scientific research, while maintaining the primacy of a profound commitment to theological orthodoxy. [end-div]
Original Sin: Humanity’s Misery
December 22, 2015 | Andy Saur
Original Sin: Humanity’s Misery
Original Sin: Humanity's Misery Joel Green Richard Niebuhr famously remarked that “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith” (Man’s Nature and His Communities: Essays on the Dynamics and Enigmas of Man’s Personal and Social Existence [Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965], 24). Although this judgment is often repeated today, it faces a number of objections. Thus, the whole church has never come to a common understanding of “original sin,” modern optimism regarding human progress has made it difficult for many to take original sin seriously, contemporary sensibilities in the west reject the notion of original sin in favor of a positive sense of human self-worth, theologians have raised ethical objections against the notion that God might hold people responsible for the human sinfulness of past generations, and evolutionary biology has sounded the death knell on the idea of sin imputed to all of humanity on the basis of the rebellion of our first human parents. For these and other reasons, the doctrine of original sin has fallen on hard times. Indeed, Niebuhr’s observation in support of the doctrine is apropos only if central ingredients of the traditional doctrine of original sin are first jettisoned. This is because the doctrine has traditionally concerned itself with more than people behaving badly, moving further to its concern actually to identify sin’s origins. But observations about sinful behavior cannot speak with any clarity regarding sin’s etiology. Niebuhr’s judgment can thus be associated only with a chastened view of original sin, one that has less to do with sin’s origins and more to do with the human family’s blindness to its involvement in sin. As a consequence, theologians today are recasting the notion of original sin in ways that take seriously the biblical evidence and contemporary science, along with the theological work the doctrine needs to do. (For a brief survey of some of these voices, see here.) For example, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen writes of original sin under the heading, “The Misery of Humanity” (Creation and Humanity, [Eerdmans, 2015], 387-425). His approach to the subject is guided by the recognition of two central realities: the witness of Scripture is not well served by central aspects of the traditional doctrine of original sin and the Christian tradition has been characterized by a range of views. To be sure, Kärkkäinen expends more energy on the plurivocal Christian tradition regarding sin, and less on the biblical materials. However, his claims regarding the latter are widely shared among biblical scholars – including Anthony C. Thiselton, whose recent, brief survey of biblical, and especially Pauline, notions of sin underscores the fallenness of humanity and the universality of sin sans some of the traditional trappings of the doctrine of original sin (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 2015], 149-53). On the basis of his engagement with the biblical and historical-theological evidence, then, Kärkkäinen identifies four areas where the doctrine of original sin requires correction: The doctrine’s erroneous attempts to ground itself in Genesis 3 The doctrine’s problematic view of the genetic transmission of sin The doctrine’s misunderstanding of original sin as entailing guilt and condemnation in relation to human responsibility The doctrine’s overly individualistic account of sinfulness Additionally, Kärkkäinen is very much aware that widely held views among evolutionary biologists undermine the credibility of the doctrine when it is conceived in traditional ways. Because of these obstacles to the doctrine, he thinks the phrase “original sin” leans too heavily into speculation about the origins about which we know next-to-nothing and is loaded with a number of assumptions that in popular thought are too often taken as the orthodox doctrine of sin. Accordingly, he puts forward the word “misery” as an umbrella term for speaking of original sin and the fall, as well as its effects. This doesn’t mean that Kärkkäinen is ready to do away with the doctrine altogether, however. After all, it points to some significant, basic intuitions about sin. These include the “the radical nature of sin that ‘meets’ the human person as soon as one becomes part of that family and the affirmation that all humans have a ‘universal solidarity in sin’” (388). A robust doctrine of human misery is important, too, for the space it opens for the profound redemptive and reconciliatory work of Christ. What shape might an account of the Fall take if it were to work seriously with both the scriptural witness to sin (and its lack of explicit interest in sin’s etiology) and current knowledge regarding human origins? The way forward is marked for Kärkkäinen by considering Adam and Eve as symbols of the human family and as representatives of those hominids who, in their transition to modern Sapiens, developed in their capacity to exercise free will and self-consciousness. For them, the “Fall” was, as it were, a “fall upwards” – into both deeper self-awareness and deeper awareness of God. Those early ancestors would not have lived in the fog of spiritual darkness or clutter of decisions that eventually would overtake the human family as it turned away from God, yet they were subject to temptations, to the desire to turn away from God’s voice, and to those inclinations they would have inherited from their evolutionary past, including their vulnerability to all kinds of perversions, violence, abuse, and self-centeredness. Interestingly, this perspective on humanity maps easily onto the story Paul tells in Rom 1:18-32 – the story of a human family who chose creation rather than the creator, and who were given over by God to their own desires and distortions. The portrait Kärkkäinen paints, then, emphasizes the universality of human sinfulness, its personal and structural nature, and its character as a disease that pervades the human family relationally rather than genetically, but which does not focus with too much specificity on sin’s origins in our ancestral past. The result is a theology of original sin that takes seriously the nature of the scriptural witness, the pluriform testimony of the Christian tradition, and evolving perspectives from the natural sciences.   This piece first appeared on the Catalyst blog and has been reposted with permission. [div id="blockquote"]This study asks a pressing question: If humanity emerged from non-human primates—as genetic, biological, and archaeological evidence seems to suggest—then what are the implications for Christian theology’s traditional account of origins, including both the origin of humanity and the origin of sin? The integrity of the church’s witness requires that it constructively address this difficult question. This three-year project is designed to help the church wrestle with the theological implications of contemporary scientific models. The starting point for this project is not one of advocacy for a particular position, but a respectful engagement of scientific research, while maintaining the primacy of a profound commitment to theological orthodoxy. [end-div]
The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation: Engaging Ronald Osborn's "Death Before the Fall"
September 8, 2015 | Andy Saur
The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation: Engaging Ronald Osborn's "Death Before the Fall"
The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation: Engaging Ronald Osborn's Death Before the Fall J. Richard Middleton I’ve been interested in the question of how the Bible addresses the problem of suffering for a long time. This is sometimes called the theodicy problem—from the Greek for God (theos) and justice (dikē). Many writers through history have tried to “justify” God in light of the reality of suffering. My own interest in this question is based both on theology and personal experience. First of all, I am drawn to the Bible’s theological vision of a good creation. Having written quite a bit about God’s creational intent for the world’s flourishing (in articles and books), I am keenly aware of the need to grapple with the reality that the world does not at present match up with that ideal. But it isn’t just that the world (out there) doesn’t match up to this ideal. Around the time I was coming to fully embrace a positive biblical vision of a good creation (having just completed a book on the Christian worldview), my life began to experience serious dissonance from this vision. As a result, I found it difficult over a period of some months to trust in God’s goodness. (I’ve recounted some of this story on my personal blog.) During this time, I was introduced to the psalms of lament as a powerful resource for renewing trust in God in the midst of suffering. One outcome of this experience was an essay I wrote on the problem of suffering and evil that contrasted the attempt of classical theodicy to “solve” the problem with the more experiential approach of the lament psalms (Why the ‘Greater Good’ Isn’t a Defense). Another was the book that Brian Walsh and I wrote on Christian faith in a postmodern world. The Question of Evolution and Evil I’m now being pressed to think further about suffering, given what I’ve come to understand about the evolutionary processes uncovered by various sciences (including paleontology and genetics). I am interested in how we might think about the Bible’s presentation of origins (origin of the world, of humans, of evil) in light of cosmic, biological, and human evolution. One facet of this issue is the reality of death and suffering prior to the origin of human beings. It seems undeniable to me that that biological death, animal predation, and natural disasters all predate humanity. We are latecomers on the scene, and plants and animals (from bacteria to dinosaurs) were subject to death by extinction, predation, accident, disease, or simply old age (if they were lucky) long before us. This means that we can’t reasonably attribute these factors to the results of human sin (a “curse” on nature). Indeed, my own re-reading of Genesis 3 and other biblical texts has helped me realize that the common Christian assumption that nature was systemically affected by human sin isn’t clearly supported in Scripture. (I’ll get to the origin of this idea later.) Even with this realization, questions remain. This is where Ronald Osborn’s thoughtful new book comes in. With vivid prose and an engaging perspective, Osborn addresses the problem of animal suffering for Christians, whether of “creationist” or evolutionary persuasions. The book is tendentious (in the best sense of that term), arguing both for and against particular positions with passion and verve, yet it does not in the end come to a clear or unambiguous position on its primary topic, namely animal suffering. But the book certainly made me think, which (in my opinion) is high praise. Osborn on Literalism There are two prongs to Osborn’s argument, which make it, in effect, two books, or at least a book with two purposes, and two audiences. Part 1 (nine chapters) attempts to help conservative Christians move out of narrow literalism in their reading of the Bible’s creation narratives (by literalism he means an approach to the text that assumes a simple correspondence between what the Bible says and concrete realities in the external world); this approach tends to be associated with a young earth and treats the Noahic flood as the explanation for the fossil record. Osborn is uniquely qualified to address this sort of literalism, since he was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church. Although he doesn’t go into details about this, it was the founder of the SDA church (Ellen G. White) who popularized the view that flood geology (and not deep time) decisively explained the current fossil record (this having been revealed to her in a vision, in which she claimed to have actually observed the flood). This interpretation of the fossil record (along with its assumption of a young earth, and the lack evolutionary descent) informed the hermeneutics of William Jennings Byran, the famous prosecutor in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (Byran had read SDA literature on this topic). To this day, many in the SDA church are principled defenders of young earth creationism. Since I do not count myself among those who read the Bible this way, I was less interested in part 1 of Osborn’s book. Nevertheless, there are some good chapters there. These include chapter 2: “Unwholesome Complexity,” which shows just how certain creationist readings end up tying the reader into interpretive knots, and chapter 6: “The Enclave Mentality,” which is perceptive about absolutism and the demonization of the other often found in fundamentalism. I was particularly taken with the author’s characterization of the anxiety of a literalist reading of Scripture as “a high-stakes game of Jenga” (p. 45), where if you touch one of the bricks near the bottom the entire theological edifice might collapse. However, Osborn’s rhetoric in this section of the book can be dismissive at times, and might put off some readers who need to grapple with the important issues he raises here. Osborn on Animal Suffering and Death In the five chapters of part 2 of Death Before the Fall, Osborn finally gets to his advertised topic—animal suffering. Osborn explains that the critique of literalism in part 1 “is to a large extent prolegomena” to part 2, which addresses “the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering and mortality” (p. 19). Osborn correctly notes that this is a problem for both creationists and evolutionists. Although creationists often object to the implication of an evolutionary account of the world since it involves millions of years of the suffering and death of animals (through extinctions, disease, carnivores preying on herbivores), even creationists need to account for why God would allow animal suffering (especially through predation) to be so pervasive in a young earth. If this is due to the Fall (human sin) as most creationists claim, doesn’t this seem like unjustified suffering? Since most creationists affirm that animals were vegetarian prior to the Fall, this means that carnivores are a post-Fall phenomenon. Does this mean that today’s carnivores were previously herbivores who suddenly grew (or evolved) canines? Or did pre-Fall carnivores use their canines for eating vegetation? And beyond all these crazy theories, creationists still need to answer the question of why animals have to suffer for human sin. Earlier, I noted that Osborn’s background in the Seventh Day Adventist church equipped him for addressing young earth creationism. In a similar manner, his approach to the problem of animal suffering is informed by having grown up in Zimbabwe of missionary parents, which included many visits to a game reserve. He mentions his awareness of the presence of predatory animals (crocodiles and jackals) and describes witnessing lions eviscerating a fresh kill with the smell of blood in the air. The world of the game reserve was “deeply mysterious, untamed, dangerous, beautiful and good” and “the danger was part of its goodness and beauty. . . . Herein lies the central riddle of this book” (p. 13). Although part 2 contains five chapters, the tension evident in the above quote is embodied in the contrast between chapters 12 and 13. These are the chapters that most interested me. Animal Predation as Part of God’s Good Creation—The Witness of Job Chapter 12 (“God of the Whirlwind”) explores the vision of the book of Job, where animal predation is part of the world God celebrates. In response to Job’s complaint about his sufferings, God describes in his first speech an untamed non-human world that includes suffering and death (Job 38-42). Not only does God send rain on a land where no human lives (Job 38:26-28), but in his rhetorical questions to Job, God implies that he provides food for lions and ravens: 39Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 40when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? 41Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food? (Job 38:39-41) Indeed, God commands the eagle to build her nest on high, from which she delivers prey to her young (Job 39:27-30), who “suck up blood;/ and where the slain are, there she is” (39:30). Those are the closing words of God’s first speech to Job, and I have often thought it is no wonder that Job was struck silent, at a loss for words at such a gruesome image. But Osborn is right in emphasizing that throughout the first speech God is delighting in animal ferocity. This delight continues in God’s second speech, where the creator boasts about Behemoth and Leviathan (given the mythic overlay of these beasts, I wouldn’t reduce them to known animal species, as Osborn seems to do here). I initially thought that Osborn wrongly identified the second beast with Behemoth (pp. 153 and 157), but it turns out that he was using the New English Bible’s rendering of the first beast as a “crocodile,” which is what most interpreters take as a possible model for Leviathan, the second beast. Part of the reason I misread Osborn here is that he quotes selections from the description of Behemoth (40:15-15, 19-20) along with selections from the description of Leviathan (41:12, 33-34), all in one block quotation, without distinguishing them from each other (p. 153). He himself may have been confused by the NEB, which he was quoting, since it idiosyncratically translates 40:15 and 20 as if Behemoth (“crocodile”) was a carnivore (“who devours cattle as if they were grass” and “he takes the cattle of the hills for his prey and in his jaws he crunches all wild beasts”). In the NRSV these lines are correctly rendered: “it eats grass like an ox” and “the mountains yield food for it where all the wild animals play” (this is what the Hebrew actually says). In other words, while Leviathan is clearly a carnivore, Behemoth (seemingly modeled on a Hippopotamus) is a herbivore (though still a dangerous animal). Despite this slip, Osborn’s point is well taken that these dangerous beasts (like many animals in the first speech) are paraded before Job as part of a world God is proud of. Predation and danger therefore do not constitute “natural evil” in the book of Job. Beyond Osborn—The Psalms on Animal Predation A similar perspective may be found in the Psalms—although Osborn doesn’t explicitly address this. But his case could be strengthened by adding other relevant biblical references to God’s approval of animal predation as part of the natural order. Just as Job mentions the feeding of ravens, so does Psalm 147. Verse 7 calls on the reader to sing praise to YHWH because “He gives to the animals their food,/ and to the young ravens when they cry” (verse 9). Ravens are omnivores, often scavenging on carrion. And just as Job mentioned the feeding of lions (which are clearly carnivores), so Psalm 104 notes: “The young lions roar for their prey,/ seeking their food from God” (verse 21). The psalm even claims that God feeds all animals: 27These all look to you to give them their food in due season; 28when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. (Psalm 104:27-28) This implies that at least some biblical texts (Job and Psalms) regard animal predation (thus animal death, even suffering) as simply part of the good world that God made; after all God feeds the animals. This is, therefore, not part of what we should regard as “evil.” If a human being is injured or killed by a wild animal, this is certainly “evil” to us; but to regard animal predation in general as “natural evil” is a highly anthropocentric judgment. The Parallel between Animal Predation and Natural Disasters Thinking of animal predation as “natural evil” is somewhat like viewing natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes) as intrinsically evil. Yet such destructive phenomena have been part of the world long before humans; they are simply part of the natural geological forces and weather patterns on this planet. Like animal predation, when a natural disaster negatively impacts human life, this is certainly “evil” to us. But that has to do with the interaction of humans and nature, not nature considered independently. Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Baker Academic 2010) is a superb theological exploration of this theme. Fretheim (who is one of the most careful readers of Scripture that I know) clarifies how we may think of natural disasters as part of the wildness of the cosmos that God has incorporated into the order of the world; this wildness is part of the good (but not “perfect”) creation that God made. Such natural phenomena may certainly be impacted negatively by human behavior (Fretheim suggests that Scripture itself supports this). And he boldly addresses how the Bible even portrays God as mediating judgment on humanity by the use of natural disasters—all the while affirming that such disasters are not intrinsically evil. The Central Riddle Early on, Osborn mentioned “the central riddle of this book” (p. 13) is the tension between the beauty and terror of animals in the wild. In chapter 12, Osborn mounted a good case for viewing animal predation (and the suffering this naturally causes) as part of God’s good creation. As I noted earlier in this post, I found his argument from the book of Job (supplemented with the perspective of various Psalms) convincing. However, Osborn is not content with making this point. In chapter 13 (“Creation & Kenosis”), Osborn explores the other side of his tension, namely that it does not seem satisfactory to simply affirm the goodness of animal mortality and predation, given the very real suffering evident in the animal world. He calls this a “deep scandal” (p. 157) and notes that “There are things under heaven and in earth that we should not be at peace with, and the jaws of Behemoth, I would submit, are one” (p. 157). Osborn therefore turns to the theological notion of kenosis, in connection with the Patristic doctrine of theosis, to address this problem. In the end, his claim is that Christ’s self-emptying and death was for the redemption of all suffering, even that which predates human evil. Kenosis The theological idea of kenosis is derived from Philippians 2, where Paul describes Christ’s self-humbling (verse 7). 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied [eknōsen] himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. This is the first half of a poem or hymn that Paul quotes, the second half of which affirms Christ’s exaltation after death, and makes clear his deity (by using language from Isaiah that in its original context referred to YHWH’s uniqueness). Traditionally, the idea of kenosis is associated with Christ giving up or letting go of his deity (or of his attributes of deity), suggesting that the incarnation involved a subtraction or lessening. However, this misreads the text, which affirms instead that Christ (who legitimately has all the power of deity) did not use this for his own advantage, but (in humility) became a servant, even to death, to bring us salvation. This is the core of N. T. Wright’s argument in his chapter on Philippians 2 in The Climax of the Covenant. The point is clear if we ask why Christ can be an example for us (verse 5). He didn’t model becoming empty of deity (whatever that might mean); that wouldn’t be relevant to us. Rather, Christ modeled the compassionate use of power and privilege. If the one who is equal to the Father used his deity for our sakes, how much more should we use our God-given privileges to serve others in love. It seems to me that Osborn tends towards using kenosis as an umbrella term to refer to Christ holding in abeyance his divine attributes, which led to his suffering (so he incorporates suffering under kenosis). This is why he can identify kenosis with open theism, which affirms God’s self-limitation in order to generously allow creatures space for genuine freedom. But one can be sympathetic with open theism (as I am) without affirming kenosis in Osborn’s sense. Theosis Osborn pairs his notion of kenosis with theosis, also known as “deification” or “divinization.” Although I find some articulations of this doctrine problematic, since they seem to confuse the categories of creator and creation, I understand the impetus of theosis, both in the church fathers and today among authors like Michael Gorman. The biblical warrant for using language of theosis is usually 2 Peter 1:4, which affirms that God has promised that we “may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.” Of course, this doesn’t mean becoming God, but godlike in our character. But beyond the transformation into godlikeness, the theosis doctrine, especially in Irenaeus (second century church father), is also associated with a goal-oriented vision of salvation. That is, the transformation that redemption effects is not a return to primitive origins, but along with repairing what went wrong, brings humanity to its intended telos or goal, which sin impeded. So this combination of kenosis and theosis allows Osborn to articulate a vision of God’s compassionate suffering in Christ, which serves to bring the cosmos, with its immense animal suffering, to God’s intended telos of perfection where all suffering is eradicated. I have to admit that I am attracted to Osborn’s vision. Indeed, it is similar to my own articulation of the telos of salvation in my book A New Heaven and a New Earth. Like Osborn, I would go beyond Irenaeus in applying this goal-oriented vision of salvation to the cosmos and not just to humanity. As many biblical scholars are coming to recognize, the Bible envisions a movement from a garden in the context of God’s creation of heaven and earth, to a garden-city in the context of a new heaven and a new earth, where God is fully present. So, the goodness of the original creation is not the same as the perfection God has in mind for the cosmos. I also find Osborn’s affirmation of God working non-coercively in and through ordinary processes of nature and history compelling. He notes that God’s sovereignty does not predetermine everything in advance, but gives creatures freedom to develop (p. 161). This, he explains, is the basis both of the evolutionary process and of the animal suffering this process has engendered. Why Does the Cosmos Need Redeeming? A problem is evident, however, in chapter 13 when Osborn comes to evaluate the evolutionary process, with its resultant suffering. Should we think of this suffering as “natural evil,” that is, something that is wrong in some fundamental sense, and so needs redeeming? Or is the evolutionary process, along with the suffering this has caused over the eons, part of the good (though wild and unpredictable) creation God has made? In chapter 12, on the book of Job, Osborn had argued for the natural death and suffering of animals in the evolutionary process as part of God’s good world. Yet in chapter 13, he argues that this world of animal death and suffering needs redeeming. But why would animal mortality and suffering need redeeming? Two answers are possible. First, they could need redeeming because they are the result, in some way, of human sin. But Osborn has already (rightly) rejected the idea that nature is “fallen” due to human sin. Rather, he views animal suffering as simply part of what a world of living organisms involves, especially an evolving world. Alternately, nature could need redeeming because it is intrinsically deficient (here the deficiency would be precisely the animal suffering involved in the evolutionary process). Did God Create a Deficient Cosmos? I want to affirm the basic intuition I sense in Osborn here, that the world seems out of whack with how it should be. And he clearly has a sense of kinship with, and compassion for, animals that is laudable. Nevertheless, Osborn comes perilously close to a theme that is gaining momentum among Christian writers who take evolution seriously, namely that the death of Christ atones not just for sin and its consequences (which I affirm), but for God’s inadequate or deficient creation of the cosmos. In a sense, God is atoning for his own sin in creating a deficient world. I think that the issue comes down not to whether evolution should be accepted (I agree with Osborn that it makes more sense of the evidence than any alternative). Rather, the issue is whether we think of the chaotic wildness of the cosmos (of which evolution can be considered a part) as part of a good creation or as “natural evil” which needs to be redeemed. We cannot have it both ways. Either a good creator brought into being a good, though not “perfect,” world. Or God is not a good creator, and so cannot be trusted. And no amount of kenosis can atone for this. The Need to Distinguish Creation from Fall and Redemption According to Osborn, “God creates as he redeems and redeems as he creates” (p. 160). But I would want to maintain that God’s generous power evident in creation (which does not require God’s suffering) is distinct from God redemptive action to reverse the fall (which certainly requires God’s suffering). I fully agree with Osborn that the kenosis of the cross (rightly understood) opens our eyes to see the realities of good and evil; but when he states that “When Christ cries ‘It is finished’ on Easter Friday the creation of the world is at last completed” (p. 165), I must dissent. Otherwise creation and fall are indistinguishable, and God is not a good creator. This means that we need to think carefully about the interconnection between God’s telos or goal for creation (which does not depend on the introduction of sin) and the need for redemption (which does). I myself haven’t fully sorted this issue out.   This piece first appeared in three parts on J. Richard Middleton's blog has been reposted with permission. [div id="blockquote"]This study asks a pressing question: If humanity emerged from non-human primates—as genetic, biological, and archaeological evidence seems to suggest—then what are the implications for Christian theology’s traditional account of origins, including both the origin of humanity and the origin of sin? The integrity of the church’s witness requires that it constructively address this difficult question. This three-year project is designed to help the church wrestle with the theological implications of contemporary scientific models. The starting point for this project is not one of advocacy for a particular position, but a respectful engagement of scientific research, while maintaining the primacy of a profound commitment to theological orthodoxy. [end-div]
Evolution, Atonement, and the Redemption of All Creation (Part 2)
September 4, 2015 | Andy Saur
Evolution, Atonement, and the Redemption of All Creation (Part 2)
Evolution, Atonement, and the Redemption of All Creation (Part 2) Celia Deane-Drummond In Part 1 of this post, I discussed the difficulties of finding a way of expressing the atonement that both deals adequately with the need for reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humanity, as well as the need to redeem all those ills characteristic of the evolutionary world and even perhaps inklings of moral ill in some social animals. Moreover, how can God be thought of as holy, exercising justice, while refraining from dualistic approaches that seem to pitch evil against God, even in the work on the cross? Are such dualistic tendencies in evidence in Luther’s portrait of the cross as some kind of ‘mighty duel’ with human sin, death and hell, through which Christ ends up as victor in the struggle? Hans urs von Balthasar takes up the Reformed tradition as represented in the work of the Lutheran Gustaf Aulen in order to develop his portrait of Christ’s dramatic struggle at the heart of atonement. I find this a promising approach, though there are still difficulties with the way Balthasar conceives the event of the cross. Aulen recognised that the idea of an alien evil in the world is harder to accept today, but even if accepted, God cannot defeat such an evil by an external power. Instead, God’s opposition must be carried out from within, rather than outside, world history. Yet such opposition should not be thought of in dualistic ways, rather, ‘even hostile powers must finally serve his all embracing design for the world’, so that we can think of this as an inner conflict between wrath and love in God, where love is always deeper than wrath. The significance of Aulen for Balthasar is that he believes that the conflict between God and evil needs to be expressed in such a way that it is neither monistic, nor dualistic, but dramatic. For Balthasar, this ‘dramatic’ dimension is key, so that in ‘Christ, God personally steps onto the stage, to engage in “close combat” and vanquish powers that enslave man’. [1] In the fourth volume of Theo-Drama Balthasar’s discussion of the atonement comes out most clearly. Here he finds the struggle on the cross that Luther speaks about formulated in paradoxical ways. But he finds the absoluteness of Luther’s concept of ‘exchange’ troubling, for sola fides is not consistent with the idea of Christ as effecting an objective exchange with sinful humanity, and seems more like a human achievement. He is particularly critical of Luther’s ‘union of opposites’ as that which ‘affects his entire theology’. Balthasar says there is a struggle between opposites even within God, so that on the cross grace is embroiled with sin, and sin imbibed with grace. For Balthasar the illogical nature of the notion of ‘exchange’ comes to the surface, since the act of faith is not synchronous with Christ’s act, and the only synchronous event is objective change in status for humanity. Luther’s ‘first righteousness’ won through faith only finds its expression through opposites. Hence, grace only appears in wrath, heaven is only reached by going through hell, and so on. Luther’s so called ‘second righteousness’ is that which follows the call of the believer to holiness in response to the ongoing sin found in the world. Yet there is a tension here that Balthasar does not really fully address. For on the one hand if the cross is the initiative of God, then it implies a God who is vindictive, and Balthasar has been criticised for portraying God in such terms. On the other hand if the cross is an outcome of human sin, it implies human initiative. In this respect it is perhaps more reasonable to suggest that more anthropological interpretations represent a genuine interpretation. The most significant aspect of Balthasar’s dramatic theory of the atonement is that not only does it attempt to reclaim the importance of consideration of the holiness of God, it also seeks to give due weight to human responsiveness, or as I might suggest, creaturely responsiveness in kinship with other creatures. The importance of this crucifixion scene in the drama for Balthasar is essential, for him, ‘God’s entire world drama hinges on this scene. This is the theo-drama into which the world and God have their ultimate input; here absolute freedom enters into created freedom, interacts with created freedom and acts as created freedom’. [2] Balthasar develops a view of the immanent Trinity that allows an eternal, absolute self-surrender that in turn explains God’s self giving to the world as love, without suggesting that God somehow needed either the world process or the cross in order to become God. He suggests, therefore, that the Trinity exists in self-surrender in the generation of the Son in an initial kenosis within the Godhead that underpins all other kenosis. Balthasar therefore rejects the idea that God suffers in the manner of creaturely suffering, but also recognises that God grounds the possibility of that suffering, and ‘something happens in God that not only justifies the possibility and actual occurrence of all suffering in the world but also justifies God’s sharing in the latter, in which he goes to the length of vicariously taking on man’s God-lessness’. [3] While he recognises that this means ‘to walk on a knife edge’, his concept of suffering that is in solidarity without identity is, I believe, convincing – at least to some extent. Of course, Jesus, in his Godhumanity, is also one who would share fully in human suffering to the extent that we may be able to say rather more as to what that solidarity with suffering implies. In the crucifixion, Christ carries the load of the world’s No to God, that is, an existential acceptance by Christ, rather than being imposed from the outside, so that there is ‘an inner appropriation of what is ungodly and hostile to God, and identification with that darkness of alienation from God into which the sinner falls as a result of his No’. [4] Yet it is also equally possible to extend the existential burden that Christ understood as including not just human sin in isolation, but also the cumulative and negative weight of evils of evolved creaturely being as such. Without such extension the death of Christ becomes expressed just in terms of human weakness and human reconciliation with God. While the latter should not be minimised, I am arguing here for a more thoroughgoing compass to the scope of the atoning work of Christ, such that it takes up and includes the voice of all creaturely Nos, including and especially that of humankind. Concluding remarks The evolution of sin presents serious challenges to those who want to restrict considerations of the atoning work of the cross to human activities in isolation from human evolutionary history. While I am critical of the narratives employed by evolutionary psychologists, this does not mean that human persons are to be viewed simply as detached cultural units, sheared from their grounding in natural history. Rather, the implication is the opposite. Tendencies found in the human world are also characteristic of social animals more generally. Further, once we view animals as having in some sense moral agency, then theories of atonement need to be widened and stretched to include creaturely ills. How far atonement also encompasses evolutionary ills that arise out of the processes of natural selection is a matter for some debate, though I suggest that objective as well as subjective accounts of the atonement need to be held together. Moreover, in as much as the future hope is one that includes freedom of the non-human world from these ills, then it is also appropriate to consider that the significance of Christ’s cross and resurrection also extends in a mysterious way to include such evolutionary suffering. The qualifications associated with distinctions between moral and amoral suffering, and moral and natural evils, alongside what I have termed communal anthropogenic sin mediated through natural impacts, such as environmental harms, need to be born in mind in making the case for the atoning significance of the cross. Drawing on ethological studies, the distinctions commonly set up between humans and higher primates are artificial in their construal of human uniqueness. I am not advocating a theory of no distinction; rather, humanity is perhaps best thought of as unique in its extent of various capacities, so that the depth of sin and betrayal possible in the human community far exceeds that in the non-human world. We are left with a discussion of which theories of atonement, if any, are useful in such an analysis. In as much as theories of the atonement have either tried to lay the blame for casting the burden of evils onto Christ by a wrathful God or by accidents of human history, they have failed to convince. Avoiding the issue entirely by speaking simply of Christ’s redemption without reconciliation is also not a convincing strategy, as it seems to leave intact the underlying problem associated with combining the justice and holiness of God with God’s love. Drawing particularly on Balthasar, in dialogue with other Lutheran theories, I have argued for the primacy of love in any considerations of the atonement, especially that which relates to the self-giving of the inner kenotic movement of the Trinity, rather than kenosis as understood in a primary sense as that between Creator and creation. I have also extended Balthasar’s theo-drama in the life of Christ as one who chose to take on the sins of the world, by suggesting that this choice also embraced not just the negativity of human sin, but also sin more generally associated with creaturely being.   [1] Hans urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Volume 2, tr. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 161.. See B. Quash, Theology and the Drama of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 156-7. [2] Balthasar, TD4, 318. [3] Balthasar, TD4, 324. [4] Balthasar, TD4, 334-5. This piece first appeared on the BioLogos blog on June 30, 2015 and has been reposted with permission. [div id="blockquote"]This study asks a pressing question: If humanity emerged from non-human primates—as genetic, biological, and archaeological evidence seems to suggest—then what are the implications for Christian theology’s traditional account of origins, including both the origin of humanity and the origin of sin? The integrity of the church’s witness requires that it constructively address this difficult question. This three-year project is designed to help the church wrestle with the theological implications of contemporary scientific models. The starting point for this project is not one of advocacy for a particular position, but a respectful engagement of scientific research, while maintaining the primacy of a profound commitment to theological orthodoxy. [end-div]

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