Thursday, June 22, 2017

Which System?

There are many ways to read the Bible. One approach seeks to find the meaning in the original context and the (best as we can figure it) meaning the original human author intended. This is the hard work of exegesis! However, there is a longstanding practice, recognizing the hand of God (inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is also mysteriously at work, which recognizes that there is more within the text than the human author could know. Here we listen to the wisdom of the church and the voice of God in the orthodox teaching of the universal church (Tradition) throughout history.

The creation account in Genesis speaks of God making the man in His own image and likeness. If one reads the Jewish Bible regularly, then one notes that there is a regular pattern of word pairs. "Kind and merciful," "just and righteous," "unfaithful and sinful," the Jewish Scriptures are filled with doublets which obviously intend to say the same thing. "Image and likeness" is probably just that, and I would argue that the revelation here is that God has created the only image of Himself which is allowed on the earth. It is a rejection of the practice of idolatry--no images are to be made--and an affirmation of the importance of human beings--hence, the law is summarized as Love God, Love Humans.

However, in the East, Christians have long interpreted this creation text in a different way. The image of God is understood to be continuous, but the likeness of God is impacted by our choices. Since the sin of Adam, while we retain the image, the likeness is understood to be tarnished, sick or diminished. The purpose of the Christian life is to repent (turn back to God) and live a holy and virtuous life which is open to the transforming power of God's Holy Spirit. We depend on God to save us, but God depends on us to be open to the gift of salvation.

This is technically a "misread" of Genesis at one level, yet, arguably, the Holy Spirit at work in the church has actually given a revelation (an unveiling) of a deeper meaning. Literature is like that, the original author provides a text, but the reader is able sometimes to make unexpected true connections to a world hidden from the author.

In the West, the idea of sick souls needing healing, while not foreign to us, is secondary or even tertiary in our approach to God. We tend to embrace law and sin as the primary metaphors for our relationship with God, so grace and salvation are understood legally. The "divine criminal justice system" is a the predominant popular theology in West Tennessee. However, perhaps we need to revisit the "sick souls" metaphor to ponder if the "divine medical health care system" doesn't offer us additional insights into our relationship with God. God is a Judge, but He is also a Physician. God does call us into account, but He also nurses us back to health. Jesus did die on the cross to pay for our sins (a metaphor combining bookkeeping and criminal justice), Jesus was executed in our place. However, is such a view comprehensive enough? In other words, is justice served when guilty criminals are declared innocent and set free? Is there something more needed?

The health care metaphor addresses this latter concern. If a gracious verdict may free us from our jail sentence, it does not transform us. Many of us do not care if the judgement reflects reality, we prefer to get away without paying the price of our crime. However, few of us want the doctor to misdiagnose us. If I am coughing and feverish, I want to be cured, not declared "fit as a fiddle" in spite of my continuing symptoms. We want to be in the hospital as long as it takes to cure us (though not one minute more) and, unlike jail, most of us return of our own volition if we relapse.

Healing of the soul is, in the end, our greatest need. I am a sinner, but sin is more than breaking laws. Sin is missing the mark, falling short, heading in the wrong direction--sin is not being what I should be. The goal is union with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Jesus shows us that the way of the cross is the way of life, the cross is as much medicine as it is punishment. Perhaps, medicine is the superior model for understanding the life of a disciple. 

Jesus, the Healer, embraces the human condition. We are saved, in part, by the incarnation, where God enters our situation to open us to enter into His. The cross is medicine in that Jesus deifies the suffering and death we all endure. We are no longer alone in these horrible struggles, because God in and through Jesus has made them His own. The cross is the ultimate medicine because through it God (who is Life) enters into death. Death cannot contain life, so our destiny is life through death. Sin as law breaking is too narrow, failing to take into account not only my moral shortcomings but also all my other brokenness and limitations. I am also sick, wounded and suffering. I am a perpetrator, but also a victim. I need forgiveness, but I also need help.

No one metaphor can contain all the mystery of God, but given a choice between the criminal justice system or the health care system, I think the latter makes more sense of my life journey in faith. "Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!" forgive me and heal me, make me whole and holy.


  1. Jeff, thanks for this perspective. It does seem like we hear so much more of sin and forgiveness instead of repentance and healing. Your writing here is greatly appreciated.

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