Christmas needs the cross, part 1

December 18, 2013

While I’ve written appreciatively about fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli’s blog in the past, I don’t think I’ll make his Christmas card list this year. Micheli is a pastor in Virginia whom I’ve never met. We’ve only corresponded on his blog, and even there I’ve worn out my welcome.

I’ve been involved in a mostly one-way argument with him recently about several theological issues, the most pressing of which is his current series of Christmas-themed blog posts entitled, “Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross.” He argues that most of his church members have gotten Christmas wrong: They believe, he says, that Jesus “came in order to die.” As best I can tell, that’s his blunt characterization of their response to the question, “Why did Jesus come?” He disagrees that Jesus’ primary reason for coming is to save us from our sins.

In my response to his first post on the subject, I wrote the following in the comments section:

I think you overstate your case. Saying that Jesus “came to die” is an inelegant, un-nuanced way of expressing the truth that Jesus did, in fact, come to rescue us from our sin and reconcile us to God. I don’t know from Maximus the Confessor (we didn’t read him at Candler), but to say that Jesus came primarily to reconcile us to God is about as uncontroversial a doctrinal statement as I can imagine. “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven…”

He argues instead that even if humanity had never sinned, God still would have become incarnate.

I’ve been to seminary. I’ve read some books. I’ve never heard this idea before. I agree completely that the cross wasn’t the only reason Jesus came, but to say it’s the primary reason—in the sense that through the cross, atonement is made possible (irrespective of one’s theory of atonement)—doesn’t seem like a stretch to me.

In response to his second post on the subject, he backtracked slightly. He said that he wasn’t denying that sin was a problem that God solved through the incarnation; it just wasn’t the main reason. He reiterated that Jesus would have come anyway. I still wondered aloud whether he was placing sufficient emphasis on the problem of sin:

You concede, then, that Jesus is at least a solution to a rather large problem, among many, many other things. Again, it’s no theological error to say that this is the primary reason Jesus came, not out of compulsion, but out of love. What does the angel say to Joseph in Matthew 1: “You’ll name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Not that the angel said everything that needs to be said about Jesus or his identity, but isn’t it fair to say that he said the most important thing?

Was the angel wrong, I wondered, to emphasize forgiveness as the main reason Jesus came? (Pope Benedict didn’t think so, as I discussed in a recent post.)

In response to this, he wrote (sadly, the last time he’s responded to anything I’ve written),

I’m not suggesting that Jesus doesn’t save us from our sins nor that sin is not a very big deal. I’m only arguing that to say the Son is preexistent forces you to say either that God created foreseeing a fall for which God would require an innocent’s blood or the incarnation has purposes other than and prior to the atonement. It’s a topic best suited to one long sustained argument but then no one would read it so its broken up over 500 words posts.

To which I wrote:

Of course God created knowing that one consequence of doing so was the cross. He obviously thought it was worth it. God is eternal and outside of time. I’m not aware that this is a controversial idea.

You’re caricaturing penal substitution, and not for the first time. It’s not God’s sending an innocent victim, who happens to be his Son, to the cross; it’s God himself choosing the cross, choosing to bear our sins, choosing to die in our place. I’m guessing you disagree with that theory of atonement, but please represent it fairly.

In response to his next post, I asked if he denied that God had foreknowledge:

Eternity encompasses time. There’s no moment in eternity (inasmuch as it makes sense to speak in those terms) when God the Son isn’t also the One who died for our sins, since God is eternally present in every moment always. Are you doubting that God has (what we clumsily call) foreknowledge (which is always present knowledge to God)? It doesn’t follow that God “changes his mind” if he knows (from all eternity) that one consequence of creating our world is coming into the world to redeem it. It doesn’t change God’s nature because God is love, as demonstrated by God’s dying on the cross.

Sadly, no response. I wonder if he hasn’t lost his audience, because since then I’m the only one commenting on these posts.

It’s his blog, of course. He can do what he wants. But isn’t it a breach of blog etiquette not to allow for some give and take, especially when he’s writing about something so provocative? Anyway, I also commented on his fifth post here, but let me skip to his most recent one.

He argues in his sixth post—the worst of all, I’d say—that God cannot love us apart from the incarnation. I’ll leave it to you to read the post. His argument has to do with the inequality between humanity and God, and how true love can’t exist except between equals. (He’s borrowing an argument from a Dominican priest and writer named Herbert McCabe. I haven’t read McCabe.)

If equality is an essential attribute of a loving relationship, then it becomes evident that ‘whatever relationship there may be between God and his creature it cannot be one of love.’

The relationship is instead as unequal as it can possibly be.

We might think of God as caring benevolently for his creatures or as the Source of all value in them or as a Master rewarding/punishing them, but we can’t, McCabe argues, ‘think of God has giving himself in love to a creature.’

The gulf between Creator and creature is such that to say God loves me is on par with saying that I love yeast creature that made my beer possible.

Those hackneyed Christian songs might speak of the singer being in love with God, but it’s even more ridiculous to suppose the singer could sing about God being ‘in love’ with us.

Therefore, to solve the problem of inequality, God becomes our equal in the incarnation. The fact that the Father loves the Son even as a human being means that God can now love us. If I’m mischaracterizing what he’s written, please let me know. I don’t think I’m far off. Regardless, here’s what I wrote in response:

You say that the gulf of inequality between God and humanity is so wide as to be “immune to analogy” before making your point by using analogies: a master/slave relationship and a human/”yeast creature” analogy.

Why even that? If it’s immune, it’s immune. By your logic, it’s not clear that there is any [meaningful] relationship, or if there is we can’t say anything about it; it’s utterly beyond words.

Except we have this revelation from God called the Bible. In the beginning, God already has a special relationship with his creatures. He lovingly creates them and calls them “very good.” He imbues them with the special dignity of their being made in his image—which is hardly something so trivial as to be placed on the side, as you suggest.

Moreover, prior to sin, God is pictured as walking around with his children in the Garden. What does that imply, if not that God was in a loving, parent-like relationship? God is pictured standing shoulder to shoulder with these human beings!

What changed that relationship? Sin.

You’re not doing justice to the biblical story. Not even close! And your one “pivot” to scripture is a novel interpretation of a verse—the most important verse, you say—in John’s gospel. Forget John 3:16. That verse is wrong because it says that God loved the world before he sent his Son. Indeed, that a prior love motivated him to do so.

Good heavens, the God who created us with all our quirky attributes, who knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves, who sustains us into existence at every moment—such that if he removed his Spirit from us we would cease to exist—can’t love us unless or until he becomes incarnate? Because, by your logic, God still needs to learn something about us: God needs to grow.

Are our Jewish friends talking nonsense about God’s love? After all, for them God never became incarnate. For that matter all those analogies that speak to God’s love in the OT are nonsense as well.

I said this earlier, but any theology—no matter how elegant and logical—needs to make sense of what the Bible says first. How does yours do that?

One problem I have with Jason’s writing is his tone. It’s not simply that I often disagree with what he says, it’s the way he often says it. For example, in this post, he writes:

When we say that God still would’ve condescended had Adam never fallen, we’re pointing out the (rather obvious) fact that there are certain metaphysical realities that require Incarnation if our speech as Christians about God is to be more than nonsense.

Really? So let’s get this straight: This “rather obvious” fact that God would have become incarnate even if we hadn’t sinned—a fact that has never been obvious to me or any other Christian thinker I’ve read or known—means that we who fail to grasp this fact are talking nonsense when we talk about God?

I’m sorry. This makes my blood boil.

7 Responses to “Christmas needs the cross, part 1”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    My blood is boilng too! (It reminds me, in a different context, of how evolutionists “belittle” intelligent design proponents as being obviously unscientific and morons.) Perhaps the most obvious error he makes to me is his statement that love can only exist between “equals.” Excuse me? Where did that come from?

    • brentwhite Says:

      It comes from an idea that completely contradicts the Bible and common sense! Parents love their children, don’t they? He really got under my skin, that’s for sure.

  2. Jessie Oehrlein Says:

    I know I’m commenting on a really old post (sorry about that!), but I wanted to point out that the idea that the Incarnation would have occurred even if we hadn’t sinned is a fairly common idea in Eastern Orthodoxy (which also affirms “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief”). I’m not sure if/where the idea shows up in western Christianity, though.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Better late than never! 😀 Thanks for commenting.

      I’ve heard that this emphasis shows up in Eastern Orthodoxy, but as with any tradition, EOs need to demonstrate that this tradition conforms to scripture. Read the rest of my posts on the subject. Among other things, Thomas Oden, who knows more about Patristic Christian thought than nearly anyone else, says in his systematic theology that it’s no exaggeration to say, summarizing the Fathers, that Jesus was born to die.

      From Micheli’s point of view, God couldn’t have come into the world (primarily) to save us from sin because that would imply that God were responding to something that we humans did, which would imply change on God’s part, which would (so he believes) compromise God’s immutability and impassibility.

      What utterly bizarre reasoning! You simply can’t make sense of the Bible if God doesn’t respond to his creatures. Forget about compassion. Forget about wrath toward sin and evil. Forget about answered prayer. God is for all eternity an immovable stone. We can only move toward him. He can’t move toward us.

      Micheli has been dealing with life-threatening cancer, from which he is now in remission, thank God. In one of his blog posts on the subject, he talked about prayer. I asked him, in all sincerity, what does he expect God to do in response to his or anyone else’s prayers concerning his illness? Honestly. How would he answer? (Micheli didn’t respond to my comment.)

      He says that he’s writing a book on his battle with cancer for Fortress Press. So maybe he’ll talk about it there. Who knows?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I once read a “Christian theologian” who said that God the Father was so “immutable” that he did not even feel sadness upon Christ’s crucifixion! Talk about deranged! God’s “immutable perfection” is precisely that he has exactly the RIGHT reaction to whatever circumstance he encounters–not that he has no reaction at all!

      • brentwhite Says:

        No sadness, no anger, no compassion… no feeling whatsoever. It’s insane. These people imagine that they’re protecting God’s “perfection,” but their version of God is less than perfect: because emotion isn’t a defect!

        And, Tom, you more than anyone have challenged me to ground my theology in the Bible. People go through seminary brainwashed: “Aquinas said…” “Origen said…” “Augustine said…” Brilliant men, of course. But on the other hand, who cares what they said, if what they said isn’t consistent with scripture?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Well, thank you for the compliment. Yes, “solo scriptura.”


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