By C FitzSimons Allison
Charles Bennison’s denial of the sinlessness of Jesus, contravening thereby the testimony of scripture and Christian tradition, on the basis of no authority but his own opinion, has given us a great opportunity. Instead of concerning ourselves with the negativities of a bishop denying the faith he has sworn to uphold, we have an opportunity to trace the logic and roots of his belief.
This is important because I believe he is merely stating a belief that is doubtless widely held in our times. He, thereby, gives us a chance to speak to pervasive assumptions of our age that lead him to voice the logic that, in turn, leads to a sinful Jesus.
CS Lewis’ short five-page essay ‘God in the Dock’ has described our times as accurately as any: we have traded places with God. He is now in the ‘dock’ of the accused and we humans are in the seat of judgment. We are the judge of God. Reinhold Niebuhr put it quite humorously, ‘In the beginning God created us in his own image and ever since we have endeavored to return the compliment.’
Yet in no previous time has the age been so destitute of any grasp of God’s awesomeness, his transcendence, his holiness, and most of all, his justice. When we put God in the dock, when we become the judge of God, and when we recreate him in our image what is fatally lost is his justice.
With the loss of the God’s justice, mercy is no longer mercy but acceptance, a natural right. The father’s reception of the prodigal is not love and mercy but necessity and duty. The following books represent an accurate diagnostic understanding of our times:
Donald McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity. WC Placher, The Domestication of Transcendent Thinking About God. E Brooks Holifield, A History of Pastoral Care in American: from Salvation to Self-Realization. Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship.
We breathe the air of a climate characterized by the loss of the justice of God. We have become the judge of God whom, we fashion in our own image. ‘… if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century we should perhaps ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings’ is the last sentence in Karen Armstrong’s widely praised and scarcely criticized book, A History of God. There can be no better diagnosis of arrogance than the uncriticized assumption that ‘we are to create a vibrant new faith…’
God, in our times, is not only the object of our criticism but of our condescension (Rabbi Kushner’s best seller Why Bad Things Happen to Good People ends with the exhortation that we ‘must forgive God’). Jack Miles’ recent book, Christ, A Crisis in the Life of God claims that Christ died, not for our sins, but for God’s sins! (He has received the John Templeton prize for religions for this book!)
Scripture has been little help to clergy in these God-critical times because the way in which the historical critical method has been employed. Since God is in the dock certainly Scripture is, also. Scripture is no longer the judge of us but we are the judge of Scripture. All of the disciplines of the last 175 years in the study of the Bible are called ‘critical’: higher, lower, form, historical, literary, trajectory criticism (An exception is Brevard Childs’ ‘canonical’ approach.) If one were to approach one’s girl friend in this critical spirit any romance would be a failure from the start.
Luke Timothy Johnson once observed ‘the way we teach the New Testament is comparable to rape.’ You ask a student if she or he has had the ‘Introduction to the Synoptic Problem’ course and the reply is ‘yes,’ as if ‘it’s been done to me.’ No wonder that in such a climate Charles Bennison can say, ‘Since we wrote the Bible we can re-write it.’
Why have we so easily lost the justice of God? Moses, Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel, Job, John, and Peter were shocked in awe before God, knowing that they were unfit to be in His presence. I think one revealing reason that encourages us to go with the culture in relinquishing any hope for justice is our fear of tests. I’ve taken many and I’ve never liked them. The most serious test I passed because the examiners didn’t know how much I didn’t know. A much more intimidating test is the one in 2 Corinthians 5.10 where ‘all must appear before the judgement seat … so that each one may receive good or evil according to what he has done in the body.’ And confronted with this Examiner, who knows everything, I prefer to give up on justice and merely go to sleep forever. The phrase I omitted, the judgement ‘seat of Christ’ changes my whole attitude. Here is the promise of mercy that enables me to hope for justice.
George Bernard Shaw has a young man in one of his plays complaining, ‘All I want is justice!’ An older and wiser figure replies, ‘All you want is justice, that which no one has ever had? And if you couldn’t get it!’
Likewise, Portia, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, wisely reminds us, ‘Consider this, that in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.’ Any modicum of Christian and Biblical understanding of the justice of God leaves us all without hope except in his mercy (that is all, except sociopaths and Pharisees).
Given the loss of God’s justice it is little wonder that a sinful Jesus us adequate for our arrogant age. But this confident assumption that sinner can be comfortable and unscathed in the presence of God’s justice is absolutely unsupported by the revelation of God in scripture. God’s justice is not out justice. Then only way we can commune with him is through the innocence we do not have. This innocence was symbolized by an unblemished lamb, that ‘God will provide,’ as he promised Abraham. John the Baptist proclaims ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’
The rich young ruler turned away for ‘it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel through the eye of the needle.’ But it is not just the rich man. ‘When then can be saved?’ Jesus replies, ‘With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ What we cannot do, God has done in what Niebuhr called the ‘impossible possibility’. God has provided the innocent and pure lamb who makes possible our communion with God himself, the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham ‘God will provide.’ A sinful Jesus is adequate for those whose God is less than just, and those who believe that their own righteousness is enough.
A sinful Jesus is a retrograde resolution that understands neither the intractable problem more the merciful solution. Contemporary lowered- market Phariseeism pays a heavy price to escape the test of God’s justice. It results in the absence of humility, irrelevance of mercy, obsolescence of forgiveness, reduction of justice, nurture in self-indulgence and ends in a religion of desperate attempts at self-satisfaction.
The Right Reverend C FitzSimons Allison is the former Bishop of South Carolina.