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The Cruciform Beauty of Horrific Divine Portraits

Alleged Burial Site of King Arthur

Only a person who is aware of the crucified Christ can properly understand Scripture.”

Luther (Table Talks)

In the last three posts I’ve been wrestling with how insights from Matthew Bate’s book, The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation might help us interpret violent portraits of God in the OT in a way that discloses how they (along with all other Scripture) point toward the enemy embracing, non-violent, self-sacrificial love that is God’s eternal nature, as revealed on Calvary. On the precedent established by Paul and other NT authors, Bates himself argued that his research implies that contemporary Christians should “unabashedly gaze on the ancient Jewish scriptures through the realigning lens of the Christ story….” (353). I enthusiastically affirmed this, though I added that we must give greater specificity to “the Christ story” by noting that it is thematically centered on the cross, as I’ve argued elsewhere. This then brought us to specific question I want to wrestle with today: How does gazing at violent portraits of God through the lens of the crucified Christ – portraits such as Yahweh causing parents to eat their babies (e.g. Lev. 26:28-29; Jere 19:9; Ezek.5:10 ) and commanding genocide (Deut 7:2) — help us discern how they bear witness to the crucified Christ? And how might the precedent of the NT’s use of “prosopological exegesis” play into this?

I want to share at the outset that I am a little hesitate to share what I’m about to share here. While this post (like most of my posts) is longer than posts are supposed to be (sorry!), what I’m going to share is said so briefly that I am aware I risk being misunderstood. I am offering in several pages one small but crucial aspect of “The Cruciform Thesis” that I spend 700 pages defending in the book I’m working on (The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Reinterpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (IVP, forthcoming). I thus ask readers to indulge me while reading this, trusting that there is much more to be said in defense of my proposal, much more to be said to qualify and nuance my proposal, and certainly many more questions and objections that need to be addressed regarding my proposal, than I can even begin to scratch the surface of in a post, or any series of posts. Yet, my concern at being misunderstood is balanced by a desire to provide readers with something that may be helpful without waiting another 18 months.  So I offer this, for what it’s worth, while asking readers to withhold a final verdict until they’ve read the book!

I will begin to address the questions raised above by reminding readers that “prosopological exegesis” involves interpreters discerning a different “voice” in a passage other than the “voice” that the passage itself seems to posit (2). In this light, I’d like us to notice that we engage in a sort of “prosopological exegesis” when we discern the crucified Christ to be the definitive revelation of God. We discern a divine “voice” behind the apparent “voice” of the cross. Think about it.

If someone views the crucified Christ merely “from a worldly point of view,” as Paul did before the Spirit “removed the veil” and allowed him to see “the glory of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 5:6, cf. 3:14-16, 4:6), they only see a God-forsaken, guilty-appearing, crucified criminal.[1]  That is all that is apparent to the “natural” eye and “fleshly mind.”  Once one has their eyes opened, however, they are empowered to see, by faith, through the surface of this ugly event to behold in its depth the Creator humbling himself to become this God-forsaken, guilty-appearing, crucified criminal. By grace they can hear the beautiful revelatory “voice” of God in the depth of the ugly “voice” of the God-forsaken criminal.

In other words, it’s not what takes place on the ugly surface of this horrific event that reveals God. In fact, what appears on the surface of this event simply mirrors the ugliness of our sinful, cursed state back to us. But God is revealed in the ugliness of this sinful, cursed event when we are empowered by grace to discern by faith what is going on “behind the scenes,” as it were. Seeing through the ugly surface of this event, faith perceives the Creator, stooping out of unfathomable love and covenantal faithfulness, to become the sin and the curse of this event. Faith perceives in the depth of this ugly, God-forsaken event, the revelation that God “made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21, emphasis added). And faith perceives in the depth of this sin and curse-mirroring event that Christ “has become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13, emphasis added).

It’s evident that, only when we are empowered by grace to see through the sin and curse that constitutes the surface of this event can we discern the Creator humbly stooping to become our sin and our curse. And it is this humble stooping, perceived by faith, that reveals God. The revelation of God, in short,  is not in the sin and curse that is mirrored on the surface of the cross: it is rather in God’s humble condescension to fully identify with the sin and curse that is mirrored on the surface of the cross. And in light of this analysis of how the cross becomes revelatory to those who exercise faith in it, I trust it is now clear why I would claim that discerning the cross to be God’s definitive self-revelation involves a kind of “proposopological exegesis.”[2]

My claim is that we should read all Scripture exercising the same faith that we exercise in the cross. In fact, inasmuch as the cross is the culmination and definitive expression of God’s covenant with his people, and inasmuch as Scripture is the inspired record of God’s covenantal activity leading up to this culmination and definitive expression, I contend that our faith in the crucified Christ, on the one hand, and our faith in Scripture as God’s written Word, on the other, should not be thought of as two separate exercises of faith. As Jesus himself taught, Jesus is the “life” of Scripture and the one to whom all Scripture points (Jn. 5:39-45; Lk 24: 25-27, 32, 44-46). We should therefore read Scripture exercising the same faith we exercise when we discern God to be revealing himself on the cross. This is what I mean when I say we should read Scripture “through the lens” of the cross, and it constitutes the heart of what I’m referring to as “a cruciform hermeneutic.”[3]

Reading all Scripture through the lens of the cross means (among other things) that we should read all Scripture with the awareness that the “voice” of the God who “breathed” it (2 Tim.3:16)  will be discerned not in what the “natural” mind can discern on the surface – the “letter” of the text, as Paul says (2 Cor. 3:6) — but in what faith can discern in the depth of the text. It means we should read all Scripture with the awareness that the one who “breathed” it is a God who reveals himself most decisively by identifying with limited humanity (in the Incarnation) and by identifying with our sin and our curse (on the cross).  And it thus means we should read all Scripture with the awareness that God is a God who sometimes reveals himself by taking on the semblance that reflects our sin and curse more than it does his true, enemy-embracing, non-violent, self-sacrificial, loving nature.

The criteria for distinguishing the degree to which any passage reflects the true nature of God versus the degree to which it reflects God stooping to identify with our sin and curse is, of course, Jesus. As we read Scripture knowing who God truly is in the crucified Christ, we can accept in a straight-forward way all depictions of God to the degree that the character the passage ascribes to God conforms to what Jesus reveals about God. Seeing these portraits as revelatory still involve us exercising a cruciform faith, for we must yet look through the surface of the text to discern in its depths the humble Creator stooping to accommodate himself to the limitations of our fallen humanity.  Only by faith can we discern anything in Scripture to be “God’s Word.” Yet, like most of the teachings and actions of Jesus, these Christ-like depictions of God require no special faith-interpretation to understand them. The “voice” at the surface of the text may, to this degree, be accepted as a reflection of the ultimate “voice” of the text. To this degree, the “God of the text” can be assessed as accurately reflecting “the actual God,” to use Eric Seibert’s categories.[4]

By contrast, to the degree that any portrait of God in Scripture falls short of the loving character revealed in Christ, the cruciform hermeneutic would lead us to distinguish the “voice” at the surface of the text from the ultimate, revelatory “voice” of the text.  Interpreting violent portraits of God through the lens of the cross would lead us to identify the surface of these portraits as mirroring the sin and cultural conditioning of those whom God is identifying with rather than accurately reflecting the true nature of God. To this degree, we must discern a gulf between the “God of the text” and the “actual God,” who is fully revealed in the crucified Christ. What rather reflects the true nature of God in these portraits is something only a cross-informed faith could discern. Knowing that the God who “breathed” all Scripture is a God who sometimes reveals his love and covenantal faithfulness by identifying with the sin and cursed state of his people, we are empowered to look through the ugly surface of these portraits and discern this same cruciform God stooping out of love in the depths of these texts.

And now –  and (so far as I can see) only now – can we begin to understand how grizzly portraits of God causing parents to eat their babies and commanding his people to slaughter women, children and babies can bear witness to the enemy-embracing, non-violent, self-sacrificial love of God revealed on Calvary. As we interpret the inspired record of God’s faithful covenantal activity from the vantage point of its culmination on the cross, we can discern times when God’s faithfulness is recorded in a straightforward way, but other times when it’s displayed in indirect ways, bearing witness to the truth that God has always been the sin-and-curse-bearing God he reveals himself to be on Calvary. Exercising the faith that discloses God on Calvary as we listen for God’s “voice” in this inspired record, we are empowered to interpret all horrific portraits of God as harbingers of Calvary, where God bore the sin and curse of all humanity.

To discern the God revealed on the cross in all Scripture, we must commit to reading all Scripture through the lens of the God revealed on the cross. To read it otherwise, I submit, is to be unfaithful to the cross.

In the end, Luther was right in theory, if not in practice, when he said: “Only one who is aware of the crucified Christ can properly understand Scripture.”

Think about it. And please stay tuned. I have more snippets of the Cruciform Thesis to come!!!

[1] I am here speaking from Paul’s first century Jewish perspective, where faith in God and the meaning of the cross as a curse is presupposed (see e.g. Gal. 3:10-14).

[2]  Since the point I’m making is not about this ancient exegetical strategy itself, there is nothing to be gained or lost by disputing whether or not I am stretching the definition of “prosopological exegesis” too far in making this claim. My point would not be weakened if I were to simply claim that faith in the crucified Christ as the revelation of God is analogous to what goes on when ancient authors employ “prosopological exegesis.”

[3]  I flesh out and defend “the cruciform hermeneutic” in chapter VII of The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Reinterpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (InterVarsity, forthcoming).

[4] E. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior : Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009). I deeply appreciate much of Seibert’s work, especially as it concerns his insight into the full scope of the problem we confront when dealing honestly with Scripture’s violent portraits of God. Yet, I do not agree with his solution to his problem. He in essence argues that violent divine portraits of God can be dismissed because the narratives they are found in are not rooted in history.  Among other problems, this solution not only stands in tension with the traditional affirmation of the “plenary inspiration of Scripture,” but it fails to show how all Scripture bears witness to Christ.

 Lies Thru a Lens  via Compfight

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