‘Fear you all who rule over the earth.
‘Know you nations and peoples that Christ is our God.
‘For he spoke and they came to being, he commanded and they were created; he put everything under our feet and delivered us from the wish of our enemies….
–recently unveiled 1,500 year old words from a Christian’s “charm” to ward off evil (see here)
It’s not just those in charge of the California University system (yes, the new mandate applies to all organizations, but can anyone doubt Christianity is mainly in their sights?). We are, as Cornelius Plantiga Jr. put it years ago “Natural Born Sinners”. Better put yet: high treason is in the blood of us all.
Who puts it this way? John Bombaro, an LC-MS Lutheran pastor and lecturer in the theology and religious studies department at the U. of San Diego, has done so in a powerful essay present called “The Scandal of Christian Particularity”, in Making the Case for Christianity: Responding to Modern Objections (ed. By Maas and Francisco). I will admit I am eager to talk about the chapter because I see it dovetailing nicely with the emphases in my recent series where I attempted to strengthen John Warwick Montgomery’s case (see the introduction and part I, part II and part III)
Bombaro frames his essay by talking about the default “metanarrative”, or “story that governs all other stories” that holds true in our world: the Enlightenment “fairness doctrine”. According to Bombaro,
“The idea of fairness plays no small role in the current debate regarding Christian particularism. The fairness doctrine permits that the ‘good news of God’ can be embraced (or at least tolerated), so long as it does not come with corresponding bad news from God, or anyone else for that matter.” (p. 118)
Here, of course, Bombaro is noting the “scandal of particularity”, where only those who are “in Christ” will be saved. He notes that persons ask how God could “be the cause of such unjust and unreasonable condemnation”, and that for many, this question dovetails with the “problem” of theodicy (p. 118, see last post, “The ‘Problem’ of Evil”, for more on this).
Instead of addressing the question of theodicy, Bombaro gets to the heart of the issue: this is ultimately about something we need more than anything, truth (my note: we all know that a placebo might “work” only to a degree). The story told in the Bible is not make-believe but “objective” – this is “something that happened” and is not about “feelings or opinions”. “The historical events, locations, and persons that facilitate biblical episodes of divine self-disclosure are not accidental or incidental.” Christians are to present the Bible’s total story as being entrenched in the real, just as St. Paul said: ‘I am speaking true and rational words… for this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:25-26) (pp. 123-124) “This is why the disciplines of biblical historiography, biblical arthropology, and biblical archeology are not pseudo-sciences.” (p. 122)
Bombaro turns the objection on its head by pointing out that Christ’s exclusivity is necessary to account for his inclusivity (He is for all, He desires to save all):
“A particular people, during particular times, in particular locations, enduring and witnessing particular events have yielded a particular message (in keeping with the storyline that preceded it), so that who this God is and what he is doing is clear and simple. Christian particularism and exclusivism is all about keeping the contents of Christianity in the sphere of the real, where we come to know the truth… Understood within the light of the total story of the Bible, the scandal of particularity as exclusivity undergoes clarification as God’s personal presence and specified performance in pursuit of the lost. God was not leaving his actions and their meaning to chance, relativism, or subjectivity. The Lord’s pointed action in a particular person was not for precluding people groups but keeping the story consistent so that all might know and share in the truth, both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 3:1-11)”…. God’s particularized events and means reveal salvific specificity, not bigoted exclusivity. It turns out that the specified means of grace committed to a specified people (Christians) make finding God easier but also make who he is and what he is doing more readily identifiable and understandable. (p. 125, emphasis his)*
But why is this necessary? Just what is the problem? What do we need to be saved from anyways? Before we address such modern questions, it is important to set the frame. Bombaro further grounds his above claims in the story the Scriptures tell about the very beginning. God created man and entered into a special relationship with him. In this relationship, God is the sovereign King and the crown of His creation, man, is His steward, vice-regent, viceroy, representative… meant to image the Creator Himself. In this, they were to grow in His love, even as they were to be aware of an enemy: “The King intimates that here is an enemy when he commands the man to ‘keep’ or, better, ‘protect’ the earthly kingdom (Genesis 2:15)” (p. 127)
As regards the King aspect, Bombaro is keen to drive home a particular point that “brings our worldviews, whatever they may be, into conformity with God’s arrangement of the world”:
“the metaphor of ‘Kingdom’ is the governing paradigm for conceiving and interpreting Scripture’s metanarrative…. It fundamentally governs the reading horizon of the Bible by limiting the scope of interpretation due to the fact that the meanings of the Bible had their original context in a prior historical understanding of reality as hierarchical, authoritative, and regal. It is, simply, the lens through which the Bible is to be read… the Christian does not bear witness to my Lord, subjectively, but the Lord, objectively.” (p. 126, emphasis his)
Of course, Christians know what happened: the fall.
“The covenanted servant turns on the King. And now the earthly kingdom has a new lord and the viceroy has willfully fallen captive to the dominion of the King’s enemy. Divested of the King’s Spirit-presence, the scene of “Genesis 3 is the record of man’s fall from grace and high treason… the issue of sin and judgment [must be] understood under the auspices of the kingdom metaphor, not the fairness doctrine” (pp. 127, 129)
The penalty for treason, of course, is death: “dying you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). (p. 127) These are not, “our pokey little ‘sins’”, a “personal peccadillo” or a facile understanding of “missing the mark” that we are being condemned for. Treason means “cooperating in the usurping… the sovereign’s rule”, or “consciously and purposely acting to aid and abet” his enemies. (p. 129) Further, “humanity has a specific problem, not just sins – the treacherous things we think, say, and do – but a treacherous disposition, a nature given to rebellion. No one is exempt. In this humanity is unified. It is this nature and the fruit of our nature that leaves us condemned for treason before the great King.” (p. 130)
Where to look? This particular man, Jesus Christ:
“Jesus’ representation of Israel consists of his fulfilling covenant obligations of obedience but also bearing the penalty for disobedience. Because the Kind has committed no treason, that is he is without sin in his fulfilling the will of the Father, only he can say on behalf of Israel (the people who represent the peoples of the world) “I always do the things that are pleasing to [the Father]” (John 8:29). And so the Father makes this public declaration about Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). This was not said of anyone before Jesus, not of Adam, not of Moses, not of Israel, not even of David; only Jesus. No other person in any other religion can make such a claim and substantiate it by tethering it to a historical event – the resurrection – in order to vindicate this amazing claim. Only Jesus therefore is holy and righteous, not just for himself, but for those he represents – his people Israel. And even Israel, now that the covenant is fulfilled, may be reconstituted, which is what Jesus does by engrafting the Gentiles (whom he represented in the covenant made with humankind in Adam by coming as the last Adam; see I Corinthians 15:45). Only Jesus could represent all humanity in covenant with God. Only Jesus is qualified and capable to redeem humanity as our representative King.” (pp. 132-133, emphasis his).
In a move that resonates strongly with me, Bombaro looks to Acts 17:30-31 to drive the point home:
With his resurrection and ascension Jesus is hailed as the world’s rightful King and vindicated in all he said and did. He inherits the earthly kingdom from his Father. Jesus rules and reigns, and he does so through the kingdom of God now being manifested on earth through love, mercy, peace and grace. Now the King busies himself with applying the spoils of his great victory over God’s true enemies of sin, guilt, death, and the evil one. He urgently applies his accomplished redemption through very personal, very specific means with haste. There is urgency in the mission of the King: for whereas in former times of ignorance “God overlooked” our treason until sin could be dealt with, “now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has pointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). The day of grace and forebearance of Christ’s rule will have an end and all those who abide in treason against the Son will themselves bear the judgment of the Last Day when it will be too late.” (John Bombaro, “The Scandal of Christian Particularity”, in Making the Case for Christianity: Responding to Modern Objections, ed. By Maas and Francisco, p. 134)**
As Bombero notes, Richard Dawkins asks: “If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment”? (p. 119)
According to the Scriptures, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin. The weight of sin is too great, and it must be borne and extinguished in the corpse of the dead Messiah. Dawkins simply does not understand the power, the effect, and the cost that sin brings. Of course, none of us who are Christians have fully understood the import of human rebellion and evil either – the high treason that is in all of our blood – and what our actions have wrought on the creation.
But – thanks be to God! – for we have a solution to that infection: the cross of Christ. And in His Word and Sacraments, he delivers to we who believe the benefits of Christ’s work, providing us the daily medicine that we need to fight that infection. We come back to the Egyptian charm quoted above, and its final words about the “medicine of immortality”:
“Our God prepared a sacred table in the desert for the people and gave manna of the new covenant to eat, the Lord’s immortal body and the blood of Christ poured for us in remission of sins.”
Peace that passes all understanding. For even you!
*Also a significant paragraph: “The events of Scripture that invite investigation are further objectified when identified with a particular people group – the Hebrews. The Hebrews are important to making the case because of their reputation as a candid, self-critical, and truthful people. In ancient Semitic culture a person was as their word. If you lied, you were a liar, the son of a liar, the grandson of a liar; your children were liars. Your word was your reputation and your reputation had implications for the collective lives of your family members for generations since there was no such thing as an individual in the modern sense. It is important that his kind of people, reliable and brutally honest, be the field correspondents reporting the news of God’s redemptive words and actions.” (p. 124)
**He handles the incoming objections without flinching:
“But because of their circumstances not all people have heard the good news. Shouldn’t their circumstantial unbelief be excused since the means of God have not reached them? Actually, culpability falls back on humanity. All bear the guilt of high treason by participating in and perpetuating self-contrived rule (be it through religious beliefs or not). So highly prized is self-rule, by whatever form it appears, that the truth about the world’s rightful sovereign is willfully exchanged for a lie, and thus God’s judgment is just (Romans 1:18-32); yet all the while he labors to bring the Gospel of divine pardon to them. What is more, one must be circumspect about what God has already done in his urgency to bring the Gospel to the entire world….” (p. 136).
“Humanity is to be faulted for humanity’s plight. The Lord brings the solution. We set up obstacles.”
Those are words for believers – the church – as well.
Gospel? Bombaro again:
“The Lord saw that our bondage and blindness was so great that unless he, in his great love, came born of a woman, born under the law, we would be lost… Christ has got the victory. Sin and death and judgment and the devil have been swallowed up…[in Christ]” (pp. 137-138).
For even you.
Addendum: Todd Wilken wrote a very good article on the “scandal of particularity” as it pertains to our proclamation. I summed it up here.
Images: Wikipedia, Bombaro – http://theopenlife.blogspot.com/2010/05/hoagies-and-stogies-men-who-appreciate.htm