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The Shape of Progressive Orthodoxy: Part 3 of 7

This is the third installment of my seven-part series on my expression of Adventist Christianity: Progressive Orthodoxy. In this post, I will explain Thesis 2 of the 6 I proposed (see first post), and try to demonstrate the significance of the universality of the gospel. This will also be posted on my own blog, Constructing Adventist Theology.

Thesis 2: The gospel is God’s universal claim for all creation.

The Gospel of God

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul summarizes the gospel by writing:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also.[1]

Despite all of its diversity, the New Testament is unanimous in its witness to this, that Jesus died and rose again, and appeared to those who would be his witnesses. As I already discussed in the previous thesis, this is the basis for our understanding of the Christ Event—how we conceive of both revelation and salvation, which I suggested can never be thought of without one another. What I wish now to emphasize is the fact that the gospel is the “gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1): it is not about us, it is about God.

It is certainly true that in one very important sense this means that salvation is accomplished by God’s grace, and has nothing whatsoever to do with human performance. And certainly in the context of Seventh-day Adventism, this fact cannot be overemphasized. However, commitment to obeying God’s Law is not the only reason why conservative and so-called historic Adventists have done such a poor job of maintaining a focus on God’s grace—even though I must acknowledge that this is one of the reasons. I would suggest that Adventists, both conservative and liberal, have too often overlooked the gospel as a statement about God, and focused more on what it says about humanity, whether as a way to ‘get to heaven’ or as a call for social action. And while there may be dimensions of truth to those interpretations, they are nevertheless insufficient for sustaining the life of the church, because these interpretations implicitly make us the object of theology, whereas the church and our theology must always have God as our object of worship and study. If, as suggested, revelation and salvation are inseparable, it should follow that if we conceive of the gospel primarily as a revelation of God, then our understanding of salvation should be broadened and deepened.

As is already clearly evident, my own understanding of the gospel has been deeply shaped by the writings of the apostle Paul (and the Pauline school), and, a somewhat more recent writer, Jürgen Moltmann. From the Pauline corpus, most influential to me have been 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Colossians. From Moltmann’s works, the two most significant for me have been The Trinity and the Kingdom and The Crucified God. The description I offer of the gospel is shaped by these, and I am aware that there are other expressions of the gospel that are also faithful to the Christ Event. My intention is not to act as an apologist for Moltmann’s theology, but to consider the gospel with the constant question: what does this reveal about God?

Temporarily holding off on the questions about atonement, let us simply consider what God’s act in the Christ Event suggests about God. I have argued that the decisive act which summarizes the Event is the Incarnation of the Son of God. For this reason, I interpret every dimension of the life of Jesus as an outworking of this act of God: his humiliation, suffering and death are not primarily sacrificial acts in order to atone for sin, but acts of kenosis—of becoming fully human. As the author of Hebrews writes:

In the days of his flesh, he offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his piety. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the things which he suffered. And having been made perfect, he became to all those who obey him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.[2]

The perfection that Jesus attained, and the obedience that he learned was not moral perfection according to the Law, but was perfect humanity by obedience to the will of the Father—the will that he become the Brother to humanity: “…he did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedience to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[3] Paul’s statement here is not just a recounting of the life of Jesus, but a recounting of the act of the eternal Son of God in becoming human; it is a decisive moment in reshaping the identity of God into the human God. And it is in the climax of God’s humanity that God’s divinity is most clearly discerned: “For this reason also, God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.”[4] Thus, it is only in God’s humanity that we are able to understand God’s divinity; I say “Amen” when Moltmann writes that “God is nowhere greater than in his humiliation. God is nowhere more glorious than in his impotence. God is nowhere more divine than when he becomes man.”[5]

It is for this reason that Moltmann, and I following him, see the experience of God on the cross as the center for all statements about God—because it lies at the heart of the Christ Event, which is the decisive revelation of God. For Moltmann, only those statements about God which “can stand before the face of the crucified Christ” are “true Christian theology.”[6] And those statements which cannot be reconciled to this crucified God must be eliminated, because they are mere religious projections that are wholly incongruent with the God revealed on the cross.

When we conceive of the gospel in this way—as a revelation of God—certain modes of theology are already discernibly problematic, and open for criticism; I would suggest that one of these is penal substitutionary atonement theory, which reduces the Incarnation to a mission by Jesus to satisfy God’s wrath by his perfect sacrifice—this not only has disturbing implications for God, but these implications are in serious contradiction with what the Incarnation reveals about who God is in God’s very nature, and it completely ignores the eternal plan and significance of God’s act of taking on and taking in humanity. But again, this is but one example. All this to say, as the gospel is explored as a revelation of God, the salvation of God will become clearer.

God’s Universal Claim

God’s act in the Christ Event is, in its unique and decisive character, universal. As I already alluded to, in our current context we are faced with a plurality of religious traditions whose very presence forces us to think critically about our own truth claims. Every Christian must answer the question of the ways in which Christian faith addresses the rest of the world: is evangelism a legitimate pursuit? Are there other paths to salvation? It is my contention that Christianity must not become entangled in a debate over the inferiority, equality or superiority of religions, but that we must recognize the categorical difference between the God of Jesus and the other gods. We may say, without any fear, that other religions do indeed recognize truth, and that they have a restoring and transformative power in people’s lives that may well be called a kind of ‘salvation’. However, because the salvation offered in Jesus is not simply ceaseless, temporal existence—immortal life in paradise—and because it is not enlightenment or escape, we can say definitively that humanity’s adoption into God’s Trinitarian Life comes only by God’s Incarnation into humanity.

Thus, it is integral to our gospel proclamation that the Christ Event was and is a universal event, and that it is for all people. Because God has identified himself as God with us, and because that ‘us’ is all humanity, we must never deny that the gospel is for all people. Attempts at Christian faith which deny the universality of the gospel will inevitably reduce the gospel to some empty abstraction about spirituality, loving one’s neighbor or the social teachings of Jesus—none of which were so unique to Jesus that he should receive credit or worship or thanks or following. Indeed, if Christianity is to remain Christian, and if Jesus is to be the truly human God who is revealed on the cross, Christianity must maintain that the gospel is categorically universal.

For this reason, the Christian is uniquely positioned to engage freely in interfaith dialogue, and to be unapologetic about proclaiming the gospel of Jesus—evangelizing. The universal claim that God has on the creation—claiming it as his own and taking responsibility for it—transcends individuals: in Jesus God has laid claim to nations and powers. Yes, in Jesus God is reconciling all things to himself, whether things “in the heavens or on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.”[7] We may say confidently that God is reconciling even the gods to himself in Jesus, bringing all things in subjection under his feet, so that one day “God may be all in all.”[8] Yes, this gospel even transcends humanity; God’s future is for all creation.

[1] 1 Cor. 15:3-8, NASB.

[2] Heb. 5:7-10, NASB.

[3] Phil. 2:6-8, NASB.

[4] Phil. 2:9, NASB.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 119.

[6] Ibid. p. x.

[7] Col. 1:16, NASB.

[8] 1 Cor. 15:28, NASB.

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