Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Death of Jesus

Christ's penal substitution is not the whole of Christ's work, but without it nothing else matters.

–Michael Horton in Why "Substitutionary Atonement" Remains Crucial

I have been reading a bit of The Mission and Death of Jesus in Islam and Christianity, by A. H. Mathias Zahniser.  A review at IBMR says this about the book:

Christians and Muslims have historically differed on the question of the nature of Jesus’ mission and his death. Evidence for this disagreement appears in the Qur’an and in the earliest debates between them from the ninth century. Understandably, a lot has been written on this subject. Christian positions on these points have shifted significantly over the years from absolute disagreement to attempts to reconcile the qur’anic position with the Christian. In the latter case, the differences have been attributed to the intervening history of Muslim-Christian relations. Recognizing the apparent impossibility of bridging the gap between the different narratives and purposes of the Qur’an and the Bible, and those of Muslims and Christians, there has also been an attempt simply to avoid these issues altogether. As intractable questions, they are seen to obstruct the allegedly higher purposes of reconciliation and pragmatic joint engagement in society.

This book is forceful in challenging this activist view and draws readers into a substantial evaluation of the fundamental differences. First, though, it considers the equally substantial common grounds, which include our shared notions of God, Scriptures, Jesus, and apostles and prophets (pp. 1–14). It then considers the verses in the Qur’an that apparently deny crucifixion (pp. 15–31), reexplores these questions in the classical and modern commentaries and the traditions (pp. 32–78), considers the question of whether someone else was crucified in place of Jesus (pp. 79–94), and reviews early marginal Christian beliefs about these questions (pp. 95–114) before proceeding to closely examine the relevant New Testament references that tell us about Jesus’ “final days” (pp. 130ff.).

This is a valuable resource for those who wish to revisit the impasse between Christians and Muslims over the questions of Jesus’ “mission and death.” Its value lies in honestly acknowledging that these differences exist and in exploring them squarely across the foundational sources of the Muslim-Christian traditions. The book was published under the Faith Meets Faith series of Orbis, which seeks to “promote inter-religious dialogue.” I do not doubt its potential for achieving this goal on a subject close to the heart of both Christianity and Islam.

The Mission and Death of Jesus in Islam and Christianity is primarily a scholarly book written to engage Muslims with the claims of Christianity over the most important issue, the death of Jesus.  Both Dudley Woodbury and Kenneth Bailey endorse the book on the back cover.  Woodbury says, “This book is a model of sensitive dialogue and apologetics that starts with common ground.”  There is a lot to be learned from this book.

Zahniser’s central thesis about the meaning of the cross is that Muslims will not identify with penal substitution, but instead with the “suffering that resulted from Jesus’ authentic faithfulness… His death was the price he paid for revealing God’s order [against the prevailing social structures of dominance and subservience] and acting consistently with it” (240).  He continues:

Jesus put himself in grave danger, then, in that he confronted the religious establishment, the revolutionary nationalists, and the wealthy elite.  His death was partly a function of his faithfulness to his messianic and prophetic vocation to reveal and abide by the values of God’s kingdom (241).

There is a lot in Zahniser thesis that is true, but I do question his desire to repeatedly criticize penal substitution without ever referring to any of it’s main texts (e.g. Is. 53:4-6; Rom. 3:21-26; Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Jn. 2:2).  Of the strengths of the penal substitution theory is the multitude of texts that fit the model.  I’m not saying that penal substitution is the only view of the atonement, but that it is the central theory that makes other views possible (and beautiful!).  Substitution lies at the heart of every view of the death of Christ, including Christus Victor- Jesus is fighting for you, in your place (I first heard that from Keller).

Actually, hints of substitution appear in the Qur’an, in the story of Abraham's near sacrifice of his son, “We redeemed him with a great sacrifice” (As Saffat 37:107).  And Muslims seem to understand, in my experience, that God’s perfect holiness and justice demand punishment.  Each person is responsible for his own sin, but, as I say, we are powerless to purify ourselves.  Good works don’t clean a person.  Sorry, but if you think your prayers will save you then you’re proud and you don’t need God!  That’s why the gospel is good news for Muslims.  There is something that removes sin- Jesus’ blood.  He is our mediator.  So I would disagree with Zahniser that penal substitution is irrelevant for Muslims. 

Here is a helpful chart from the ESV Study Bible, which shows a plethora of substitution views on the meaning of the death of Christ (I added “Adoption” in the Language of personal relationships).  What Jesus has done for us is beautiful and multi-faceted and mysterious!  All we can do in response is worship.

Type of Language Biblical Words Human Need The Result
Language of OT sacrifices Blood, lamb, sacrifice We are guilty We are forgiven
Language of personal relationships Reconciliation, Adoption We are alienated from God We are brought back into intimate fellowship with God
Language of righteous anger at wrongdoing Propitiation We are under God's holy wrath God's wrath is satisfied/quenched
Language of the marketplace Redemption, ransom We are enslaved We are set free
Language of the law court Justification We are condemned We are pardoned and counted as righteous
Language of the battlefield Victory, deliverance, rescue We are facing dreadful enemies We are delivered and are triumphant in Christ

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