Resurrection as Sign or Substance of Salvation?

There are two primary ways of narrating the human predicament and its resolution in Christ and these two ways involve the two broadest forms of Christianity found in East and West (categories that are ultimately inadequate). The question that divides is whether sin is the problem which gives rise to death or is death the predicament which gives rise to sin? How one views this choice is determinative of the role of resurrection but it is also the move which will either posit a gap within or organically fuse the sign of the work of Christ with what it signifies.

The problem, giving us two forms of the faith, can be traced to the 3rd century with the Latin Vulgate’s rendering of Romans 5:12 (which describes sin’s universal spread resulting in death rather than death’s spread resulting in sin, as a consequence of Adam), which will not only give rise to Augustine’s notion of original sin but to varying interpretations of the death and resurrection of Christ which will infect even those theologies which may not hold to either Augustine’s theory of original sin or Calvin’s rendering of Augustinian theory. While there are some 20 different “theories” of atonement (which are not necessarily opposed – though some are) there are two basic approaches to understanding the work of Christ: the life and death of Christ are either a direct reversal of sin (a healing or deliverance) rendered directly available through resurrection, or his life and death are a step removed from the primary problem and his resurrection is a sign pointing to the resolution of the problem (as a sign of righteousness (sin defeated), rather than the thing itself). To state it in this broad way I am intending to capture an array of understandings characteristic, in the first instance, of what we might call Augustinian Christianity (in characteristic forms of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, but also the range from fundamentalism to liberalism) and Eastern Christianity. The ultimate goal (which can only be gestured to in this introduction) is not simply to distinguish forms of Christianity which separate or do not separate the sign and what it signifies but to describe how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ directly reverse the human predicament which is not clear at this point in theories East or West.  This will entail beginning with the person and work of Christ as the interpretive frame for understanding the solution and the problem toward which the solution is directed (an apocalyptic hermeneutic).

There are texts in Scripture which might support either of these understandings (e.g. the cross as a sign or as an organic solution), so it is not enough to demonstrate that his death is a sacrifice, a consequence of sin, or a pathological result of evil. His death might be all of these things but to make it simply any one of these is not an end of explanation nor does it arrive at the fullness of an organic solution. Certainly, his death was at the hands of evil men (as Peter tells it in the first Christian sermon) but does this mean, as Edward Schillebeeckx maintains, “that we are not redeemed thanks to Jesus’ death but in spite of it.” Or does this mean that, as Donald Smythe has put it, “We revere the cross as a sign and symbol of what fidelity to God means?” What Schillebeekx and Smythe are rejecting is the notion that the death of Christ involves an exchange between the Father and the Son, removed from the human context (as in theories of divine satisfaction and penal substitution), but then they too are guilty of reducing the cross to a sign. The cross is indeed a sign of many things, but is it simply a sign of consequences? It is not enough to reject vicarious satisfaction and with it to reject the centrality of the cross, nor are ancient formulations of Christus Victor (the cross as the defeat of the devil) in and of themselves adequate to rescue this centrality. Just as Nicaea and Chalcedon would develop and extend the New Testament understanding of the Trinity, so too we must develop and extend our understanding of the doctrine of salvation.

This will entail not simply a reordering of proof texts (all 20 theories of the atonement have their texts) but beginning from an apocalyptic presumption that the work of Christ not only provides an answer but also unveils (the root meaning of apocalypse) the problem. Christ is the resolution to a problem we do not understand, as stupidity, ignorance, false sophistication, having believed a lie, is part of the problem he exposes (I Cor. 1:20). The answer comes prior to the diagnosis because the disease is one of deception. To begin with sin is to begin with a complete mystery, even in Augustine’s estimate, which will leave salvation mysterious as well.  The diagnosis and remedy entail a holistic inclusion of epistemology, as the life that one relinquishes so as to gain true life (Mt 10:39; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25) is inclusive of the life of the mind. Our addiction to one sort of life is characterized by an addiction to a foundational knowledge (our knowing), which is not simply a modern philosophical method. Augustine is not simply mistaken in his creation of his distinctive notion of original sin but in his hermeneutic which presumes to work out Romans 5:12 apart from Romans 5:10 in which the life of Christ is set up as the interpretive frame for understanding sin and death. Our desperate addiction to a form of life that kills is inclusive of a deadly, lying, interpretive frame. The sure sign of this mode of thought is that it begins explanation apart from the cross and presumes sin and death are accessible apart from his death and resurrection.  

In this sense Augustine’s mistake is the mistake of sin. Death as the occasion for sin is always obscured or denied in sin and instead it is made a result to be voided or avoided (through the law). Contractual theology negotiates a way around death, presuming as it does that the law marks the way even for the work of Christ (he keeps the contract where we could not and he pays the price required by the law). Rather than the law marking an orientation to death the law is thought to be the means of life which Christ fulfilled. The lie of sin, that there is life in the law which voids the role of death, is the mark of failed humanity and religion. You won’t die (as the serpent tells Eve) as death is unreal – a doorway to the unfolding of immortality. So too in a failed Christianity, death is made peripheral by either shuttling the work of the cross off to heaven or getting rid of it entirely. A theology which misses the very thing the cross was meant to heal bears the mark of sin. To reverse the problem, as in an Augustinian reading, and to imagine sin has some sort of mysterious coherence apart from its orientation to death (the grab for life) and its disruption of resurrection life, is to not only miss sin (it is made original, mysterious, genetically conveyed, sexual, pertaining to guilt) but to miss how the cross frees from sin (it too is made mysterious, heavenly, pertaining to the mind of God, or simply particular forms of oppression). 

 Given the starting point of the resurrection and our participation in that resurrection (Paul’s starting point in such passages as Ephesians 2) we come to understand how dying to one form of life is actually a dying into life or a dying to death. That is, resurrection as our starting point also tells us that death does not simply pertain to our morality but to an orientation which is death dealing in the living (the opposite of resurrection living). The reason that the death of Christ leads to resurrection is the same reason that our dying with him leads to our resurrection life. Jesus describes it as a germination sort of dying, bearing the fruit of life. To hold back this planting and germination, so as to keep a grip on the life one loves, is to halt life before it begins. To follow Jesus manner of life, in which he takes up the cross, is already to live out the resurrection (to die with him is to be raised with him (Jn 12:24-26)). In this understanding, death need not characterize a person’s life, so death as the controlling orientation is overcome. Death, in fact, is no longer a negative factor orienting life, but dying to this orientation by embracing the death of Christ is the means to life.  

Joseph Fahey recently shared his class notes with me from a course taught by William Frazier. Frazier used a series of questions to bring out the radical but sometimes subtle difference in these two forms of Christianity. In order to accentuate this distinction and to locate one’s own understanding I have copied, sometimes in revised form, a few of these questions below. I provide an explanation below that might aid in drawing out the difference.

1. Death is a mystery that   A. necessarily destroys life    B. potentially enables life.

2. Death is a result of   A. sin     B. creation.

3. The Father saved us     A. in spite of Jesus death    B. by way of Jesus death.

4.  According to Christian belief the Savior saves mainly by    A. bringing about a real change in the world     B. showing the world how to change itself.

5. God accomplished salvation through Christ by   A. reconciling the world to himself   B. reconciling himself to the world.

6. The Christian life is related to death as   A. oil is to water   B. night is to day    C. flower is related to seed.  

7. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that    A. sin germinates in the soil of mortality    B. mortality germinates in the soil of sin.

8. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that death    A. is something that happens to human beings    B. the way human beings happen.

9. Resurrection means deliverance   A. from death    B. through death.

10. Of the following alternatives the one I find closest to the Christian truth is that the resurrection of Jesus   A.  did away with his death   B. derived from his death    C. reversed his death.

Questioning the Sacrificial Foundation of Contractual Theory

The Following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

Traditional Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. Does this fit with the teaching of Jesus? Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), but God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice in order to do so? Is something wrong with this understanding and the view of God this entails?

Jeremiah 7:22 says, “for when I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offering and sacrifice.” This verse raises a question about the commonly understood impetus behind the Old Testament sacrificial system (specifically the book of Leviticus). Contractual theology is built upon the notion that God requires the Levitical sacrifices as antecedents to the sacrifice of Christ, but this verse would seem to contradict this understanding.

Contractual theory, in short, teaches humans are sinful (e.g. original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The contract (covenant) between humanity and God was not working, therefore God provides a way out in the sacrifice of Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in His sacrifice.

In this initial blog I want to suggest the basic premise of Contractual theory, and the theory of sacrifice undergirding it, directly contradicts the biblical teaching in the following ways:

1.   Contractual theology presumes life is in the Law (law keeping or fulfillment of the law), contrary to Romans 8:2 which says life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ.

2.   In Contractual theology those who kill Jesus act according to God’s will.

3.   The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus in Contractual theology is not to restore all things (as depicted in Acts 3:21 and elsewhere), but to serve as a sacrifice.

4.   Contractual theory assumes God or the Law require satisfaction for forgiveness, while this seems to contradict the very meaning of forgiveness. If justice is done, it would seem, forgiveness is no longer necessary. Why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ?

5. In Contractual theory, humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected not only human sacrifice, but in several verses in the Old Testament, sacrifice of any kind.

6.   God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but in Contractual theory He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.

7. Is it justice if an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil and guilty? Did God require the ultimate evil, killing the Son of God, so as to meet his need for justice? Does human violence against the Creator simultaneously satisfy the justice of God and the skewed sense of justice that put Christ on the cross?

In summary, the biggest problem with many atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr so beautifully writes, “In order to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.”[1] In other words, where God requires the sacrifice of Christ, God is the original persecutor of the Body of Christ.


[1] Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 208.

Two Opposed Depictions of Paul and Two Opposed Christianities

The story of Paul’s conversion is often described as arising from an introspective conscience in which he recognizes God’s righteousness, the heavy requirement of the law, and his incapacity to keep the law, which gives rise to his sense of wrong and his guilty conscience. He meets Christ and understands that deliverance is now provided from the requirement of the law, as Christ has met the requirements, paid the penalty, and grace is now available in place of wrath and punishment. In other words, the story of Paul’s conversion is like Luther’s – or more accurately Luther’s conversion and theology become the lens for a revisionist understanding of Paul’s conversion. It is necessary to narrate his story in this way (knowing God, the law, one’s incapacity) as it is a link in notions of judgment and justification which depend on universal access to basic knowledge of God (through nature or as a Jew) and the law (the law written on the heart or given to Moses) as the basis for condemnation and release in Christ. Realization of law and guilt serves as an unchanging universal foundation in this understanding, in which incapacity of will is the problem resolved in Christ.

Contrary to this typical depiction, Paul narrates his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free and “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. No notion of a failed works righteousness makes its appearance. In fact, even the notion of an individually conditioned salvation is missing – Paul’s Jewishness, his descent from Benjamin, his thorough Hebrewishness (presumably linguistic and pertaining to family practice) are not things he achieved. These are not earned merits in which he exercised or failed to exercise his will but are corporate ethnic markers beyond his control. His break from his Jewish notion of salvation is not because he felt it inadequate.  It was perfectly adequate, and more than adequate, as he excelled in his pre-Christian self-understanding.

Paul depicts a radical break with his former knowing and his former identity: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:7–8). There is no continuum of knowing, no building on the law of the heart, no guilt and relief. Paul is describing an apocalyptic, holistic change in which one world and identity is displaced by another. There is no ethical continuity based on the law leading to a guilty conscience. Paul does not begin from what he knew as a Jew, or his status as a Jew and thus arrive at his understanding of Christ.

Profit and loss are changed up in the economy of salvation as former advantages in attaining righteousness are loss. The previous system is “excremental” or “garbage” in comparison: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (Php 3:8). Whatever he knew previously has been displaced, and not built upon, by knowing Christ. His viewpoint, his knowledge, his ethical understanding, has been turned inside out as the former system, which was to his advantage, he now sees as a disadvantage.

Paul is not describing a progressive realization, a slow conversion, but is juxtaposing two worlds, two ways of knowing, two modes of identity. His former glory is now his shame, and his former sense of his own goodness – his zeal – is evil (the same sort of zeal that killed Christ, the ultimate evil). The very thing he would have counted as part of his basic righteousness, is evil in that it makes him “the chief of sinners” in persecuting the Church. This former knowing was deceived, misplaced, and gave rise to evil. The Jew is at no advantage, and though Paul speaks of the Jew having a knowledge of God it is misguided. You cannot get to the one by clinging to the other; the picture is not one of rightly knowing the law, failing to keep it, feeling guilty, and realizing that Christ accomplishes what one could not.

Far from the usual narrative, Paul is completely positive in his Jewishness, blameless in regards to the law, glorying in his status and accomplishments – all of which describe what he characterizes as “knowing according to the flesh.” The negative evaluation of his former condition only arises in retrospect of having known Christ.  There is no available light (he has even misconstrued Jewish light), no natural knowledge, no sense of wrong, even given the special revelation to Israel, by which Paul might be judged. In his own pre-Christian judgment, he is without external transgression according to which he might be condemned guilty. Paul’s problem is not that he discovered himself guilty and in need of deliverance from God’s wrath. Paul discovers he was completely deceived in regard to his former manner of life.

What is the basis of judgment (if not universal law) and what is the nature of salvation (if not deliverance from the law)? If Paul, by his own description, has ascended to the Jewish theological heights and judged himself flawless in regard to the law and, by the same token, the chief of sinners, it turns out the human condition is much worse than commonly reported. One can be evil in good conscience and precisely by means of a zealously clear conscience. Religion, law, Temple, sacrifice, even of a kind prescribed by God, can be so misconstrued so as to promote evil. And ultimately this is what is at stake in the two ways of narrating Paul’s story and the theologies surrounding those divergent versions.

The very meaning of good and evil is at stake in the two main versions of Christianity. In contractual theology, evangelicalism, and the main stream of Roman Catholicism, there is a naturally given recognition of good and evil. One has light available through law, ethics, conscience, and nature. There is a natural understanding of God (as the singular creator who is omnipotent and omniscient), a given notion of law, and the universal recognition of an incapacity to keep the law. Christ does not displace an already realized understanding but provides relief for this recognized incapacity and guilt.

On the other hand, in an apocalyptic understanding cosmic re-creation through resurrection founds a new form of humanity on a different foundation. The failure of humanity in the first Adam is total: it has cosmic consequences in the reign of death, the law of sin and death, and the subjection of creation to futility. The specific nature of this futility (the root meaning of the word) is that a lie reigns in place of the truth. The truth of Christ is not additional information to what has already been received, but the counter to the lie, an overcoming of the prevailing darkness, and a defeat of the reign of death. The difference between the two comes down to the most basic question: is it the case that what is taken to be good is actually evil (a total incapacity of discernment) or is it simply that good and evil are known quantities and the problem is in the will?

There is no part of the interpretive frame which is not affected by and which feeds into these two understandings (as I have shown here it pertains to every key doctrine). But the point of division is centered on Romans 1:18-32 which can be read as a universal, ongoing condition, or as a reference to Genesis and Exodus which pertains universally. Is Paul telling us how history continues to repeat itself for everyone or is he describing biblical history as it has impacted all people? Do all people know God, realize his basic nature, understand his ethical requirements, and reject him for idolatrous religion – all the time recognizing their incapacity and guilt? Or has the past rejection of God, who was known because he walked in the Garden, revealed himself audibly, manifested himself in various theophanies, and was rejected by the first couple and their progeny (Cain, Lamech, the Generation of Noah, the Babelites, the Jews at Sinai, all of whom knew God or knew of him because of direct, special revelation) impacted subsequent history? The difference between the two readings already depends upon the theology which flows from each. If humans are individualistic, rational, and in possession of the basic truth about God and ethics, then Paul cannot be thought to be describing a corporate condition of history in which the early reception and rejection of God has created ignorance of his existence. On the other hand, if sin is corporate, being found in Adam means that there is a generational accumulation compounding the problem.

Paul’s characteristic way of describing Gentiles is, in fact, as those “who do not know God” (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9; 2 Thess 2:8; Gal. 4:8-9; I Cor. 1:21). He engages what little knowledge of God he finds on the Areopagus (the height of Greek philosophical learning) by proclaiming to them the God which, by their own acknowledgement, is “unknown.” God is unknown because people “were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.” They “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Ga 4:8–9), not because they have applied themselves to their philosophical and natural studies, but because they have been delivered from slavery to the law of sin and death. Paul depicts human wisdom as no help in knowing God, and perhaps is precisely the obstacle to such knowledge: “the world through its wisdom did not come to know God” (1 Co 1:21) and on the basis of this same wisdom judges the true revelation and deliverance to be foolishness (I Cor. 1:23). This deliverance is not conditioned on their knowing, but as Paul points out, on God first knowing them. The shift is from belief in what is not God, but a dead inanimate object, to the living God (I Thess. 1:9). The passage is from out of a Satanic deception to truth (2 Thess 2:8) and is not passage from a frustrated incapacity of the will.

Romans 7, Paul’s depiction of his own, Adam’s, and every human’s interior predicament, is sometimes taken to be Paul’s depiction of his guilty conscience, but this passage is Paul’s retrospective insight. The law (the prohibition in Eden or the Mosaic law), through the deception of sin, becomes another law (a different law – 7:23), but this law is not available to the understanding or conscience (7:15). It is only as a Christian that Paul can look back on his former life and realize the Mosaic law, like the prohibition in Eden, becomes twisted by sin’s deceit: “this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Ro 7:10). The prohibition and the Mosaic law, in reception and practice, become the law of sin and death as life is thought to reside in the law and true knowledge (God-like) is thought to reside in the law. This is not the truth but the lie, which justification theory or contractual theology, seems to continue to promote.

 Paul depicts the work of Christ, and particularly the resurrection, as deliverance from the law of sin and death, which is not God’s law but the deceived human orientation to the law. The shift is more radical and all-inclusive than we might have imagined as these two laws, two ways of knowing, and two worlds do not intersect. One is either found in Adam or in Christ, and to be found in the first is not an aid but the obstacle overcome in the second. Paul’s picture is that Adam instituted the age in which sin and death rule and Christ is inaugurating a new age. 

To die to sin is to break the rule and power of sin and to enter into the reign of Christ. Baptism (dying to sin) is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in which there is a fusion with Christ through the Spirit which involves one in a different communion, community, identity, and culture (Rom. 6). Christ’s Kingdom is overcoming and defeating all the dominions and powers of this world and the latter is not preparation for but that which is annihilated by the former (I Cor. 15:24). Paul’s former manner of life was not a propaedeutic to his faith but a deceived “fleshly confidence” – garbage to be disposed of.

Universal Salvation Through Resurrection: The Answer to an Unasked Question?

After many years in the classroom the questions of students on any given topic became so predictable so as to seem almost mechanical, indicating a certain predetermined orientation of thought. I came to see my role, in teaching theology, as necessitating a shift of focus in which a particular line of questioning is abandoned or at least suspended so as to raise an alternative perspective. Poorly conceived questions or questions which are secondary, when made primary, are not harmful because an answer may or may not be available but because the question and potential answer are misdirected.  Sometimes no answer or a suspended answer allows for a different emphasis. Questions about the problem of evil and suffering, the intermediate state of the dead, the necessity of violence, or available light, given the wrong focus or emphasis have the potential of impoverishing the Christian faith. As Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated, paradigm shifts occur not so much with the gathering of new data as with the rise of a different set of questions aimed at answering a different set of problems (the answers to which may in fact be inadequate in answering former questions). What we might call “contractual theology” is primed to provide a theory of evil, to explain suffering and the necessity of violence, what happens at death, and has an answer concerning those who have never heard the gospel, but the cost, as Douglas Campbell has shown, is an inherently unstable theology which cannot be completely reconciled with the New Testament. But the simplest criterion for testing the adequacy of a theological understanding, according to Paul, is bodily resurrection.

The test Paul provides (in I Cor. 15) for an authentic Christianity is the centrality of belief in the bodily resurrection. Denial of bodily resurrection, or even of its desirability, is the primary marker, in Paul’s explanation, of a futile faith worse than paganism and not worthy of the name of Christ. Some of the Corinthians have concluded bodily resurrection is not a necessity. Paul warns that a Christianity that would displace bodily resurrection as the core of salvation is a lie. Why would they, or maybe more pertinent, why do many Christians today believe in a Christianity in which bodily resurrection is a non-sequitur (even where acknowledged it is often only as an addendum to the saving work of the cross)? As Justin Martyr explains as early as the second century, in his debate with Trypho the Jew, there are “some who are called Christians. . . who say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.” These are “godless, impious heretics,” Justin warns Trypho: “Do not imagine that they are Christians” (Dialogue with Trypho, 80). Justin continues, “I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead” [literally, resurrection of the flesh]. This heresy is probably the same that Paul is refuting (a Greek dualism of body and soul) and, of course, by this definition most of what is popular Christianity today is a false religion.

It may not be important in the contemporary scene to trace the cause of bias toward bodily resurrection – is it the influence of Greek philosophy, the same striving for wisdom (identity through difference evident in Corinth and a universal phenomenon according to Derrida), is it new ageism with its Eastern influences, or is it simply the natural human tendency? I have encountered it in a supposedly conservative campus ministry (the campus minister acknowledging it would not matter to him if they found the body of Jesus and the board, made up primarily of elders and ministers, concurring); it is obviously denied in certain strands of theological liberalism, and ever-present in fundamentalism (in more or less the form Justin condemns). The irony of the many post-evangelicals who have passed into various forms of neo-Gnosticism is that they have not changed their basic worldview. Reformed theology along with the many forms of disembodied Christianity presume that Christianity (like Gnosticism) addresses categories removed from death and the life-long orientation to death, such that resurrection would answer a problem they have not conceived.

To make the point that putting resurrection in the center constitutes an alternative Christianity, I summarily offer eight key ways (following Campbell, in part) in which a different emphasis on resurrection completely alters doctrine:

1. Epistemology – One reading of Romans is that God is known from the cosmos through reason and conscience. God’s ethical demands are clear to Jews through the law and innately by everyone else, so that reward and punishment are determined on the basis of keeping the law, which will happen on the day of judgment. Humans are sinful and everyone violates the law or fails to meet its ethical demands, and honest introspection reveals this fact so that everyone knows they are damned (all rational people are afraid and want a way out). Luckily, Christ offers a resolution to the double problem of knowing God in his omniscient justice, knowing the law, knowing of one’s incapacity to keep the law, and being afraid of one’s deserved punishment. One is able to attain to a philosophically sophisticated knowledge of God and yet there is a profound incapacity to do what one knows she should (a misreading, I would argue, of Romans 1-4 and 7).

The problem is this does not fit Paul, who testifies that his conscience was clear and that he kept the law perfectly prior to becoming a Christian. In twenty years in Japan, and I worked among cultural elites and every class of people, I failed to meet one individual that had either this natural understanding of God or of themselves. From my own education, I presumed that I would meet depressed people, agonizing over their sinful incapacity, and all I would need to do is show them a way out of their dilemma. In the entire history of philosophy and ethics it is not clear that the finest minds arrived at anything approaching what is often taken to be Paul’s starting point of human knowing.

The alternative to this misconstrued natural light is what Paul describes as resurrection knowing. As he describes in both Romans and Philippians there is knowing grounded in the law or what he describes in II Cor. 3 as knowing from ourselves and resurrection knowing. Apart from knowing the resurrected Jesus one is bound by sin and death (the law of sin and death) in which state one has believed a lie (Rom. 1:18ff, 7:7ff; Philippians 3:10-11).  There is no available light, no possibility of arriving at truth as one is given over to a lie. Resurrection knowing (knowing by the power of resurrection) is guided by the Spirit and Paul contrasts this with knowing according to the letter of the law which kills (II Cor. 3:6).

2. Anthropology – People in typical contractual theology are thought to be individualistic, rational, and cognitive, (perhaps innately immortal) and yet ethically incapacitated. The focus is on a spirituality or soulishness that is not dependent on the body. In this understanding resurrection either is not helpful or is an imprisonment in the body and the material world. In a theology in which resurrection is salvation, people are subject to death and futility and their apparent individualism is a symptom of sin. In this understanding people are not innately immortal, nor are they isolated individualistic souls. Bodily resurrection as salvation speaks of plurality (male/female, family) community and corporateness (as part of being corporeal). The incapacity of being subject to death is obviously holistic when we die – but death has a grip prior to physical death (prior to one’s actual demise) so that living out the resurrection now is equated with life in the Spirit.

3. Theology – In contractual theology God is known as a just, law giving, angry judge such that a theodicy (the answer to the problem of evil) is extrapolated (by Calvin) as flowing out of the character of God. Paul says, the death and resurrection of Christ is the vindicating act of God “who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). God’s justice in this understanding is not focused on application of law but deliverance from death. God is deliverer, sovereign over chaos and death, and loving (the source of help and rescue and not the source of hate and anger).  The helper, the Holy Spirit, enables living out this alternative understanding.

In Christ’s resurrection God is Lord over the powers: “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Co 15:21–24, NASB).

4. Revelation – Where resurrection is the reconstitution of all things, including the human capacity to know, “natural revelation” (whatever that might be construed to be) is obscured by sin and death. There is no cognitive, philosophical approach to God. We know this because revelation is life breaking into death, light breaking into darkness, understanding breaking into ignorance, truth as over and against a lie. Revelation is retrospective from resurrection – from which we can see the grip death has had upon us (Rom 7); again, life in the Spirit leads into all truth as opposed to a living death based on a lie.

5. Law – Where resurrection is the answer to the problem law is not a primary category but secondary in that it pertains to death, the real problem in human orientation (the deception is to imagine there is life in the law). It is originally a marker, as with the Jewish law, of the covenant between God and Abraham. In the prohibition in Eden we can see that law is doubly obscured in that the knowledge of good and evil is a law unto itself, not referencing God or life but as Paul describes it, referring to that which comes from the self (II Cor. 3:6). Law in the lie is a means to life and this “life in the law” is a living death. Yet the economy of salvation in contractual theory is presumed to operate on the basis of law.

6. Atonement – Contractual theory does not explain (in any comprehensible manner) why Christ must atone as against other people or things, and especially, in place of the established temple cult. The atonement that is offered involves a legal fiction in which an innocent victim dies to satisfy God’s righteousness. As George McDonald describes it:

“Justice could not treat a righteous man as an unrighteous; neither, if justice required the punishment of sin, could justice let the sinner go unpunished. To lay the pain upon the righteous in the name of justice is simply monstrous. No wonder unbelief is rampant. Believe in Moloch if you will, but call him Moloch, not justice. Be sure that the thing that God gives, the righteousness that is of God, is a real thing, and not a contemptible legalism. Pray God I have no righteousness imputed to me, Let me be regarded as the sinner I am; for nothing will serve my need but to be made a righteous man, one that will no more sin.”

Paul says that apart from the resurrection of Christ you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:17) because sin reigns through death and death no longer reigns only where resurrection has defeated death. Without the resurrection the redemptive, atoning, liberating effect of Christ’s death remains ineffective, for his death and resurrection are two sides of the redemption from the bondage to sin and death. New life (resurrection life) is the direct correlate of this delivery from bondage.

7. Faith – In contractual theology faith is a cognitive affirmation which somehow saves (the connection to salvation or deliverance is not clear). Resurrection faithfulness speaks of trusting obedience in the face of death. So, it is interconnected with a life giving, rather than a death dealing, ethic.

8. Soteriology – A Christian faith which poses the wrong problem (God’s anger), gives us the wrong answer (law is satisfied and law is the main thing), concludes death and resurrection are secondary to the main problem (God’s wrath), divides out ethics and says righteousness is merely theoretical and does not bring about a real or necessary change (it is imputed), does it deserve the name “Christian”? A religion which imagines God must punish the sinner, for justice requires it; then says he does not punish the sinner, but punishes a perfectly righteous man instead, and attributes the righteousness to the sinner, so that this is justice, I would say this is the devil’s religion that has been substituted for the Christian faith. Resurrection as the center of salvation makes it obvious that death and a death dealing lifestyle are the problem. Being saved is cosmic, apocalyptic, and not conditioned on our ability to bring it about.

The question is not whether Paul believes in a cosmic, all-encompassing, universal salvation, through resurrection. That is, we might debate exceptions, degrees of exclusion, or qualifications but such questioning and debate must be subsequent to understanding Paul’s primary and driving image of salvation. There are certain questions we must temporarily suspend lest they obscure or derail the main point: universal salvation through resurrection is the resolution to the problem of sin and death.

Saving Romans from Contractual Theology with Douglas Campbell

The hijacking of Christianity can be traced to readings of Romans which would separate Paul’s gospel from the Gospel(s) by making salvation contractual, righteousness a legal fiction, and by reducing sin to a breaking of the law. The focus on guilt (a partial problem measured by law and resolved through payment) displaced shame (a wholistic problem resolved through a reconstituted humanity) in an economy of salvation obscuring Paul’s depiction of sin as linked to a holistic deception and salvation as cosmic or universal. Christ’s death, justification, sin, punishment, or simply the language of the New Testament, severed from Christ’s universal re-creation, becomes equivocal, as demonstrated not only in the Christianities of East and West but in the Protestant fragmenting of the faith. Augustine’s rendering of Romans 5 most sharply marks the divide between East and West, with his notion of original sin and the various innovations which reach full bloom in the peculiar abominations of John Calvin. The sharp divide between German liberalism/spiritualism and the contractual theory of penal substitution, in their readings of Romans, demonstrate the instability of Protestantism in pitting one side of Paul against the other. The tension between participation in the Trinity of Romans 8 and the focus on the law in 1-3, reproduces, in Protestantism, something like the East/West split.

My work, aimed at resolution to the apparent tensions in Romans, focuses on a rereading of chapters 6-8, which involves a reworked understanding of the human problem as defined by Paul and its resolution in Christ. The problem is not that the obligations of a contract have not been met, and Christ keeps the contract. The problem is that humans are in bondage and Christ frees from this bondage. It is the specifics of Paul’s description of this bondage, as slaves to a death dealing (deceived) orientation to the law, that make sense of the peculiar deliverance enacted by Christ.

By focusing on and developing the concept that sin is a death-dealing deception in regard to the law, which accounts for the human Subject (as well as the human project) outside of Christ, the work of Christ (the entire movement of his life, death, and resurrection) can be understood as reconstituting humanity in the Truth (Trinitarian participation as in Rom. 8) as opposed to a lie.  This will then lead to a theological understanding which accounts for the focus on the revelatory nature of the death of Christ, as sin is understood primarily in terms of a death denying and death dealing deception.

The revelation of Christ is part of salvation, not because it addresses the rational soul allowing for a measured decision, but revelation, in part, exposes the unconscious work of sin as in a lie the conscious work of sin is dependent on what it negates. The specific content and dynamic of the lie is worked out in detail in Rom. 7, among other places. That which is by definition unconscious consists of the basic ‘human project’ or the ‘founding gesture’ of the conscious Subject. 

For Paul, the truth of Christ (found in facing the reality of death in resurrection faith as in Rom. 4) stands over and against the lie of sin (the resistance to death of the fundamental fantasy and the impenetrable mystery of the real –which is the power of negation of the death drive).  Christ exposes the lie of sin (death as life at the foundation of subjectivity) in his acceptance of death and reverses the orientation of sin (slavery to the fear of death) in which the denial is absolute.  Christ relegates death and the law of sin and death to a secondary category and displaces them with the truth (resurrection life).  The depth of the mystery of the truth of Christ displaces the unconscious structured as a lie; that is, sin as a false mystery is displaced by the true mystery and transcendence of Christ at work beyond human consciousness (the reconstituted unconscious).  So, on this account, the truth of salvation necessarily addresses the Subject at both a conscious and unconscious level as the work of sin is exposed as an identity grounded in the dynamics of a specific deception and orientation to death. 

The implication of my argument regarding Romans 6-8 that Christ did not die, primarily, to meet a requirement of the law but to displace a deception which involved the law, is that it is not the law which provides insight into his death, but sin as it is oriented to the law. Paul introduces an economy in salvation which can account for the law but which is not mediated by law.  Salvation, in his understanding, is not gauged in terms of the law but as a counter to sin and the establishment of an alternative identity and an alternative economy in Christ.  The law, for Paul, mediates and governs the economy of sin, but law is secondary in the economy of salvation ushered in through Christ. The law could not deliver life but God has done what the law could not do by sending his Son, and Christ has ushered in the life promised by the law (Rom. 8.3).  The way God did this was to condemn sin, not Jesus, though it was in the flesh of Jesus that sin was put to death.  ‘By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh’ (8.3).  As N. T. Wright puts it, ‘this is some way from saying, as many have, that God desired to punish someone and decided to punish Jesus on everyone else’s behalf’.[1]

Paul’s understanding of the law introduces a series of categories in chs. 6 and 8 which demonstrate that the law mediates sin but, in contrast to Anselm’s (along with the line of theology leading up to the Protestant Reformation) understanding, for Paul, the law does not mediate salvation (so law has a narrower sense for Paul than it does for Anselm).  Salvation destroys the law of sin and death and introduces the economy of life, in which there is no end of resources.  Anselm’s ‘divine satisfaction’ works within a closed economy of law and Christ meets the demand of the system.  There is, however, no relief from the system of exchange and payment but only a meeting of the demands of the law.  In Anselm’s system (and the major part of the Western tradition) the purpose of the law plays a primary and enduring role so that even in Christ it is the economy of exchange that is determinative.

In Paul’s picture of an alternative economy,  the promise of the law is fulfilled (the promise of life which it could not deliver), and the law itself has taken on its correct place as secondary to what God has done in Christ to bring life and restore relationship to God by dispelling the lie of sin with the truth of life in the Son.  The law only has an enduring role in condemning sin in sinful man (Rom. 8.4).  The alienation (between the law and the ‘I’ (ἐγὼ) or the individual) produced by a misperception of the law is overcome in the understanding that the proper role of the law is to point to life in Christ. Participation in Christ inaugurates resurrection life which is inclusive of a manner of life which presumes control over the body and an end of alienation (the ‘I’ against the law) – as ‘by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body’ (8.13).  The split between the individual and the social or between the ἐγὼ (I) and the law can be viewed as part of the problem from within the ‘body of Christ’ which denotes individual and social coherence and unity.  

My work on Romans is primarily theological and I have relied on New Testament scholarship, not my expertise, to support the details of my reading of Romans. What I could not have known is that at the same time I was completing a PhD in theology, with a dissertation and book dealing with Romans 6-8, Douglas Campbell was completing work in New Testament studies arriving at conclusions which support my primary thesis. Campbell has provided a reading of Romans that in general (if not in particular details), accords with my own work in rejecting a contractual reading, rejecting a foundational understanding (what Campbell links to Arianism) or the notion that humans can reach God through creation and reason, and in recognizing the centrality of a participatory soteriology throughout Romans. In the upcoming class on Romans, while we will not deal with all the specifics or bulk of Campbell’s reading, we will work out the details of an understanding that is at once universal, noncontractual, participatory, and unconditional.

Sign up by or before May 27th .
You can register for the course here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings.


[1] See Wright, Romans, 578.