Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Works of Belief?

A little while ago I wrote about the way we tend to substitute intellectual works for moral ones, insisting that assent to various doctrinal positions is essential to be considered a "Christian".  I just finished reading Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg and was delighted to find a very similar thought, although expressed much better than mine.  He talks about Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, and how his wisdom was opposed to the conventional wisdom of his day.  He then reflects on his own experience.

I grew up as a Lutheran, in a tradition that emphasised salvation by grace and not by "works of the law"....As Lutherans, we all knew that we weren't saved by "works". Rather, we were saved by "grace through faith".

Yet this strong emphasis on grace got transformed into a new system of conventional wisdom, not only in my mind but, I think, in the minds of many Lutherans, and many Christians generally.  The emphasis was placed upon faith rather than grace, and faith insidiously became the new requirement.  Faith (most often understood as belief) is what God required, and by a lack of faith/belief one risked the peril of eternal punishment.  The requirement of faith brought with it all of the anxiety and self-preoccupation that mark life in the world of conventional wisdom.  Was one's faith/belief real enough, stong enough?  Thus, for many of us latter-day Lutherans, the system of conventional wisdom remained.  Only the content of the requirement had changed - from good works to faith.

He repeats the point in a slightly different way later in the book.  He talks about what he sees as the three macro-stories of the Old Testament - the exodus, the exile and return, and the "priestly story" (ie the system of guilt and sacrifice).  Jesus and early Christianity, he says, reference all three.  However, he is concerned that the priestly image dominates the conventional view of Christianity.

The priestly story images God primarily as lawgiver and judge.  God's requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements.  Yet the sacrifice generates a new requirement: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and will not forgive those who do not believe.  God's forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional.  Not only is it only for those who believe, but it lasts only until sin is committed again, which can then be removed only by repentance.  Thus, although the priestly story speaks of God as gracious, it places the grace of God within a system of requirements.  The overarching image for God's relationship to us is a legal metaphor, which pictures God as the giver and enforcer of a set of requirements.

We subtly move from a theology of grace to a theology of works, all the while masking the fact in language that sounds like it's still a language of grace.  God loves us, but only if we love him.  As opposed to what Paul said on the subject in Romans 5:7-8.

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

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