Posts Tagged ‘Christian orthodoxy’

1 PETER 3:13-22

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

You just have to wonder where an author finds the chutzpah to invent a doctrine about Jesus preaching to the departed souls in limbo (which in later doctrine became Purgatory) so they, too, could have a chance to accept the offer of salvation.

Or was it inspiration? Did the Holy Spirit put this idea in his mind by supernatural revelation? If we agree, then the discussion is closed. God said it, I believe it, and that does it.

But this might be another example of the emerging religion of Christianity establishing itself by setting in place the necessary mythological foundations. As the questions came up – Who was Jesus, really, and what was he about? How is our movement connected to our parent religion of Judaism? Did Jesus have to die that way? Did his death mean something? How is the world different after Jesus, and what are we supposed to do now? – a demand for meaningful answers required the tailoring of current myths from elsewhere along with some creative invention of their own.

We can only imagine what the question behind this particular “solution” might have been. What about the people who died before the time of Jesus? If his death fixed the problem (first assumption), and if salvation is dependent on hearing the doctrine (second assumption) and accepting that all this was done for you (third assumption), then they missed out. Are they in hell for something they couldn’t know and have a chance to accept? That wouldn’t be fair! So let’s get Jesus in front of them to proclaim the good news …

The apostle Paul had an easier and more reasonable solution to the problem of salvation before Jesus. If they didn’t have the special revelation of the Law and Prophets (Judaism), then at least God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are evident throughout creation (Romans 1:19-20). Each of us will be held accountable for the choices we make in the light we are given. Fair enough.

But wait a second, already by this time (late 60s CE) Christianity had made a decisive move, from a spiritually grounded moral revolution with dangerous political implications (under the leadership of Jesus) to a messianic sect of Judaism with a strong missionary campaign to win Gentile converts (under the leadership of Paul). As it went on, the new religion needed a devotional focus (Jesus the savior) and an orthodox company line (something like: Confess your sins, believe in Jesus, get baptized, and come aboard).

Now we have insiders (the properly saved) and outsiders (the unrepentant or ignorant throng). One day very soon Jesus is going to swoop down with his angels and take us with him to heaven, leaving the rest for unpleasant times ahead. In the meantime, if anyone interrogates your beliefs, here’s what to say; if they persecute you for what you believe, then you have good precedent in Jesus himself.

He had to suffer for our salvation, an innocent victim for the sinful race. There is no forgiveness without repentance, no pardon without satisfaction. Redemption through violence: it is God’s way.

Never mind that it contradicted the original gospel of Jesus himself.



1 PETER 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,”


“A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The apostle Paul also used this metaphor of “milk” in reference to the teachings he first delivered to the converts in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:2). This was in contrast to the “solid food” that he thought would have been too much for them to digest (i.e., understand).

Milk is gentle on the stomach, but really only for newborns, since the production of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down the sugar found in milk, decreases significantly into adulthood. Research is showing how many health complications today might be traceable to the persistence of dairy in the adult diet.

With that in mind, we should question the wisdom of feeding a “milky” gospel to adults who are looking for authentic meaning in their lives. Could the significant arrest in church growth over the past several decades have something to do with the fact that preachers, teachers, and evangelists are serving an essentially tasteless and indigestible message to people who are looking for relevancy and substance?

The “spiritual milk” of the emerging Christian religion was focused on Jesus whose death had made atonement for the sins of the world. What we were unable to do – pay the penalty for sin and satisfy the conditions against God’s forgiveness – Jesus did on our behalf. Christianity made Jesus into its object of worship, eventually merging him into God as the Second Person of the Trinity. His divinity, virgin birth, miraculous powers, atoning death, literal resurrection, ascension into heaven and future return to earth became the diet of doctrines proclaimed as necessary for salvation.

And so it is to this day.

Jesus himself had spread a table of “solid food” – literally bread and wine, as the tradition goes. But intellectually speaking, he didn’t dumb things down or reduce his kingdom movement to a set of beliefs and a closed membership. Neither did he put himself at the center of devotion for his followers to worship. He didn’t let people rest in their assumptions and take the easy way. Instead he challenged them to give up everything and not look back.

Even more significantly, the gospel of Jesus was not about paying a penalty for sin or getting on God’s good side. His message was that God has already forgiven – everyone!  Jesus knew that the human future depends on our willingness to let go of resentment, set aside our demand for retribution, and let the spirit of love (rather than the demon of vengeance) move us back into relationship with our enemies. Don’t wait for repentance, he said. Just forgive, and don’t stop. This is God’s way.

Christianity would soon become an elitist religion of true believers with a  mission to save the world. The kingdom movement of Jesus, however, was an ordinary company of forgiven sinners, on fire with a joy they just had to share.

If Christianity is to become a creative force for the liberation of humanity, it’s time for a change of menu.

1 PETER 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

We have already been introduced to the idea that the kingdom movement inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus eventually changed direction into an institutional orthodoxy centered on the redemptive violence of his death, his literal resurrection, and the promise of heaven for true believers who await his end-time return.

The architect of this fateful redirection was the apostle Paul. In his writings (letters to churches) we can discern the “fork in the road” where the pressing concerns of managing a nascent religion steadily diverged from a more mystically grounded and peace-oriented spirituality.

The church in Corinth, for instance, was so unstable that Paul had to draw some pretty hard lines around Christian identity to keep the congregation from falling apart. As things go, his timely (situational) letters of encouragement and reproof were soon taken up as timeless (universal) holy scripture into the emerging institution of Christianity. Paul’s missionary career came to an end with his likely execution under the emperor Nero in the mid-sixties, a half-decade before the first narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry (Gospel of Mark) was written.

This Letter of Peter was certainly not written by the disciple and erstwhile fisherman of Jesus’ original company. The polish of its Greek vocabulary, the intellectual sophistication of thought, and the late-stage development of its doctrine all point away from him. At the very least, the references to a heavenly inheritance and the outcome of faith as salvation of the soul put it at odds with what we know as the authentic teachings of Jesus. If he was among Jesus’ first student-followers, this author has almost completely lost the social urgency and this-worldly concern of his teacher-master.

So let’s ask: How exactly did God give us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus? Is it just that we now have a way out of this damned world, to a heavenly security waiting for us on the other side? Is our “hope” that we will be better off  later? Is the task  now simply to believe rightly and win God’s protection of our faith until the final prize is gained? Is the writer assuring us of this destiny by the warrant of Jesus’ resurrection, whereby the savior got there first and unlocked the door for the rest of us?

Christian orthodoxy, then and now, answers ‘Yes’ all the way down that list of questions. Christianity soon promised a way out of this mess of a world, whereas Jesus showed us the path deeper into it tangles, with an aim of loosening the knots that bind our human spirit.

Each of us today stands at that same fork in the road.

PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This passage from the Psalms would become one of those privileged texts that early Christians used as  “prophecies” of Jesus. “I shall not die, but I shall live” and mention of a rejected building stone becoming the chief cornerstone are references vague enough to be applied in any number of ways, which is a virtue that makes them readily adaptable to a variety of situations.

The theme of being punished by God was another feature with direct transfer value to early Christian theories of atonement – of how Jesus’ suffering and death was somehow instrumental in world salvation. An assumption that reality is moral in nature is deep in the cultural DNA of ethical monotheism, which is behind the Bible’s heavy accent on obedience, responsibility, justice and equality – but also our perennial struggle with guilt, forgiveness, retribution and punishment in Western society.

For the longest time, and still for a large majority of  believers, “steadfast love” and “punishing severity” were held in tension in the orthodox concept of God. It was not an overt contradiction to regard the same personality (divine or human) as compassionate and merciful one moment, vengeful and punitive the next. This bi-polar tension in theology worked its way out as alternating anxiety and despondency in the human psyche – or perhaps the conflicted human psyche projected this bipolarity into the nature of God.

Still, by the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century CE) this internal conflict was driving denominational development. Martin Luther’s evident concern over the security of salvation was answered by John Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saved. And across all denominations the belief in God’s universal and irresistible grace has run up against the conviction that unrepentant sinners (that is, those able somehow to resist God’s grace) will suffer everlasting punishment.

Jesus would later proclaim a radical revision to this ethical concept of God, with his gospel of unconditional forgiveness. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy buried his teaching under layers of interpretation that effectively canceled out his message and reaffirmed God as a retributive deity who used redemptive violence (in Jesus’ death on the cross) to “save” the world.



When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Paul had been careful not to impose on the new Christians in Corinth some prefabricated system of orthodoxy. Instead he wanted their theology and Christian worldview to grow out of a spiritual experience – coming through them, not packaged and imported from somewhere else.

A theology that is fixed and rigidly defined will only be an obstacle, especially if its definitions have achieved a mystique of sanctified authority.

And this is where Paul had a decided advantage over where many find themselves today. As the principal architect of the emerging dogmatic system of Christianity Paul could work in and with his mission churches in this early construction, bringing the forms and ideas through the real-time experiences of his converts and fellow Christ-followers.

But for us who are coming to the scene not on the heels of Paul but after two thousand years of expansion and remodeling, the creative freedom and experiential relevance of Christian orthodoxy today is anything but lively, dynamic, and expressive of transcendent truth. In our time, an important renewal movement is reaching back for the “first voice” of Jesus himself, to the genesis movement of spiritual rebirth and world transformation that was the vital center of his gospel.

What then, if not orthodoxy? If not “lofty words or wisdom,” what did Paul first present to the Corinthians as the core truth of Christianity? Jesus Christ, and him crucified.


Observe: Jesus on his cross holds a very different value, as far as potency and meaning are concerned, from that of Jesus in the system of Christian orthodoxy. Besides there being a difference of a physical device for carrying out state-sanctioned murder versus a conceptual theory for explaining the significance of what happened there, we might simplify the distinction by saying that, while the system defines Jesus within a closed set of terms, the cross reveals the inner truth of what Jesus had been about.

For the one, Jesus is an object of explanation, and for the other he is the subject of a revelation. (We might also say that there is a difference between head and heart here, but we don’t want to encourage internal divisions of the whole person.)

For Paul, the cross of Jesus had become the epiphany of what his gospel was all about. Through the image of Jesus surrendering to his higher identity as the Christ, putting aside his own right to life and hanging in solidarity with all God’s children who suffer oppression and violence at the hands of arrogant orthodoxies, Paul perceived the very purest energy of love.

The same Spirit that searches out the deepest mysteries of God was there, penetrating the world’s darkness with its redemptive light. It’s not about doctrines. It’s about love, and it always has been.

Those who want tight and convincing definitions will be disappointed here. And those who think that salvation depends on holding the right beliefs will readily condemn it to the dustbin of heresy.