A Conversation across Time with Marcus Borg – Part 3
The Bottom Line: “The Power of God for Salvation”
A man cannot pray to Dr. Alfred North Whitehead’s “Principle of Concretion” or to Dr. Henry Nelson Wieman’s “Integrating Factor in Experience.” The fact does not impugn the value of these philosophies. They give light and leading, and serve particularly well our present age. But the fact remains that we can hold no comradeship with an abstract noun. We cannot talk to “The Life Essence” or “The Power Not Ourselves That Makes for Righteousness,” or even to “The Good, the Beautiful, and the True.” Some may claim that they pray in vaguest understanding to “The All” or to the “World-Ground,” and the claim is sincere. But, since it is not in human nature to discuss life with a wall, or to plead earnestly with a fog, these agnostic souls must assume, however dimly, a “Spirit” in “The All” – a “Spirit” which however unlike their own, has some kinship with them.
George Arthur Buttrick – Prayer (Abingdon – 1942) [65-66]
I have sometimes said, half-jokingly, that Mary Lynn, my wife of 40 years now, loves the thought of me; it’s my reality that proves challenging to her from time to time. And Hanan Schlesinger, our Rabbi friend, more than once in our Faiths in Conversation programs through the years has explained that he doesn’t love his wife in abstraction; he loves his wife concretely by “taking out the garbage.” All of which is to say that we don’t live our lives in the world of ideas.
We are not beings of pure spirit who exist by entertaining big thoughts and inhabiting the realm of noble ideals. We are people of flesh and blood who need to eat and sleep, who feel pleasure and pain, who get hungry, cold and sick. As the late F. Forrester Church, the insightful Unitarian Universalist Minister, in an essay for Phillip Berman’s the book The Search for Meaning (Ballantine – 1990), explained –
I’m not sure I became a minister until I presided over my first funeral. My own definition of religion comes out of those experiences, with people who are dying, with families who are struggling. My own definition of religion is that it’s our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. And following that definition, I believe each of us is a religious being. We probably are the religious animal. We are the one animal who knows that we are going to die and therefore have to make some sense of who we are, why we live, what the purpose of life is, where we come from, and where we are going. Birth and death are the two hinges upon which life turns. (388)
And this brings me to the bottom line in this series of “Borg Blogs” that I have been posting in recent weeks about what I think gets lost when we let go of the “Happenedness” of the Gospel. You see, my fundamental problem as a human being is not primarily that I am ignorant. Oh, ignorant I certainly am, it’s just that this is not my core issue. More and better information, while obviously useful, is never going to be the solution to what ails me most deeply, spiritually and morally.
My very first professor of theology in seminary startled us one day when he said that Jesus Christ was not a particularly “novel” teacher. In fact, he told us that virtually everything Jesus Christ ever said as reported in the Gospels had been taught by the Hebrew prophets and sages long before Him. As Paul put it, the Law is “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). In other words, long before Jesus came we already had a more than adequate expression of what it was that God expected of us as human beings morally and spiritually. The Law has been written on both tablets of stone and on the contours of our hearts. If all it takes for us to get “right” and then to stay “right” with God is information, then by Exodus 20 we should have been set. We got all the content we ever needed on Sinai. But my core issue is not intellectual. Salvation is not a sudden flash of insight, or the discovery of some cosmic truth that organizes my thinking and forever clarifies my understanding. I’ve got bigger problems than that, much bigger.
I’ve never forgotten how Nathaniel Hawthorne began his “great American novel,” The Scarlet Letter –
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.
And that gets us much closer to my core issue as a human being – I’m a sinner and I’m going to die. That jail house and grave yard is for me. As the prayer of confession that I cut my spiritual teeth on in church growing up put it –
We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.
My problem is not that I don’t know what God expects of me or wants for the world. My problem is not with my definitions of justice or mercy, or with my conceptions of righteousness and peace. No, my problem is with being consistently just and merciful, with conscientiously pursuing righteousness and peace with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength. Oh, I know what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to be. And frankly, that’s what condemns me. The gap between what I ought to be and do and what I actually am and do is painfully wide. Romans 7:14-24 is the near perfect description of my spiritual dilemma. I know what’s good and right. I even want to do what’s good and right, honestly I do! But somehow, I always wind up not doing the good quite as completely as goodness demands or the right quite as thoroughly as rightness deserves. Fortunately for me, and for people like me, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), for it was while we were “yet sinners,” that God “proved” His love for us in the death of Christ on the cross (Romans 5:8). And this is where my faith finally comes down with its full weight – not on the nobility of the things that Jesus Christ said, but on the sufficiency of the things that Jesus Christ did.
I don’t go the Lord’s Table every Sunday morning and read the Sermon on the Mount to my gathered congregation, or direct their attention to some other “red letter” teaching of Jesus Christ from the Gospels, important and true as I believe it all to be. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity doesn’t have “Four Noble Truths” that constitute the essence of what it is that we believe. What Christianity has is a cross and a Savior. The bread is broken in remembrance of His body broken for us on the cross. The cup is shared in remembrance of His blood shed for us on the cross. Jesus didn’t die as a martyr for His teachings. Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins. I am not saved by ideas, no matter how true and noble those ideas may be. I am saved by what God did for me, and for you, and for all, in Jesus Christ.
What saves me is what happened on Christmas morning when Christ was born, on Good Friday afternoon when Christ died, on Easter Sunday morning when Christ was raised, on Ascension Thursday when Christ was glorified, on Pentecost Sunday when the indwelling and empowering Spirit was poured out and on what will happen on that day in the future when Christ will come again in glory to finally and fully establish His kingdom that will have no end. These are what British theologian Alister McGrath calls the Gospel’s “hard historical facts” (What was God Doing on the Cross – Zondervan – 1992 – p. 37), explaining that “If these events did not happen, then the credentials of Christianity are destroyed.”
In his “Introduction” to the reprint J. Gresham Machen’s classic defense of the claims of historic Christianity – Christianity & Liberalism (1923) – Carl Trueman explained that the issue that was at stake in the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy in the first few decades of the 20th century from Machen’s perspective was the way that the “scientific objections” of his day to “the particularities of the Christian Religion,” namely “the doctrines of the person of Christ (Fully Human/Fully Divine) and of redemption through His death and resurrection,” had led some to conclude that such ideas were no longer acceptable to the modern mind and that if Christianity didn’t change then it would die. In their minds, in order to salvage Christianity, the Gospel’s particularities (the Incarnation, Christ’s Atoning death and His Resurrection from the dead on the third day) all had to be reworked from being the actual events of salvation history as the New Testament reports and the church had proclaimed and believed them to be into “general principles of religion” of which these “particularities” were but the “symbols” (5). Machen saw this shift as seismic. He regarded it as the beginning of an entirely different religion from the Christianity that had been believed and taught by previous generations of Christians. And while that might have been an overstatement born more of the heat than the light of the moment, this is the watershed that still separates people of faith like Marcus Borg, now of blessed memory, from people of faith like me.
The “happenedness” of the Christ event is assumed by all of the New Testament documents. The New Testament reads as the eyewitness reports of people who had “a historical experience of the great event of salvation” (Rudolf Schnackenburg). And while these claims have been challenged by critical scholarship, other equally capable scholars have credibly defended the New Testament’s claims about the “happenedness” of the Christ event. At best, scholarship winds up in a draw. Probability and not certainty is the most that either side can claim, and the fact is that they both claim it. And so, the tipping point for what one finally believes is going to have to be lodged somewhere else.
In his book Humble Apologetics (Oxford University Press – 2002), theologian John Stackhouse concluded with a story about a lunch that he was having one day with a friend who was involved in campus ministry. Knowing that any claim he made for Christ would always be challenged by the brightest students and the best professors at the Universities he visited, this guy wanted John to give him the “silver bullet” arguments that would decisively and definitively seal the deal for Christian faith. And what John told him was that there were no such arguments apart from knowing the difference that having Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior has made in your own life and for your world. Quoting Rodney Clapp, John told his friend that all we can do is “propose rather than impose Christ” (166). With genuine conviction we can offer what we have, “what we know from what we have experienced, thought about and lived” because it has changed our lives and seems to us to be “overwhelmingly true, good and beautiful” (166).
This is the difference between “knowing Christianity to be true” and “showing Christianity to be true” that William Lane Craig makes in his book Reasonable Faith (Crossway – 2008 – p.43). Only the heart “knows” that Christianity is true. This is the assurance that only the Holy Spirit can give. But Christianity can nevertheless be “shown” to be true in ways that are credible to the head. There are good and sufficient grounds for believing what the New Testament tells us about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ has done. But faith cannot be compelled by these arguments or by that evidence. Finally it is the experience of the Gospel in my life and the world that persuades me to have confidence in what the New Testament says.
For all that was excessive, conditioned and limited in J. Gresham Machen’s argument of 100 years ago (Christianity & Liberalism – 1923), as far as I am concerned this much still stands –
The basis of salvation [is] the redeeming work of Christ… Jesus is our Savior, not because He has inspired us to live the same kind of life that He lived, but because He took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross (99).… [And this means] that Christianity does depend on something that happened… for “gospel” means “good news,” tidings, information about something that has happened. A gospel independent of history is a contradiction of terms (102).… The reality of an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament presentation of the Person of Christ (107).… Where shall true Christian experience be found if not in the blessed peace which comes from Calvary? (109)
For a Christian whose whole life and faith centers on the Lord’s Supper and the saving work of God in Jesus Christ to which the broken bread and poured cup unswervingly points, the “happenedness” of the Gospel looms large in importance. I believe that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16), and that the Gospel that saves us if we believe it consists of three facts that the New Testament reports as having actually happened – “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3-4). If these things didn’t happen as the New Testament says that they did, then what the New Testament says that they mean begins to unravel and we are left trapped in our sins and dead in our graves (I Corinthians 15:17-18). And every time I set the Lord’s Table and invite people to the feast of God’s grace made known to us in what Jesus Christ did on Calvary’s cross, I am guilty of misrepresenting God and of being willfully stupid (I Corinthians 15:14-15; 19). No, all things considered, I choose instead to be unashamed of the Gospel as the New Testament tells us it happened and confident about what the New Testament tells us it means because I know its power in my heart and I see its power in the world. DBS+