Dr. Baxter Kruger did his doctorate on the theology of T.F. Torrance in Aberdeen, Scotland. He was the speaker at our 2001 Annual Meeting in Campbellville. This article is an excerpt from his latest publication, The Undoing of Adam, published by Perichoresis Press.
Two thousand years ago Jesus Christ died on the cross of Calvary. From the perspective of the Roman Empire, his death was merely another execution, another brutal demonstration of Roman authority and control. From the perspective of the religious leaders of the Jews, the death of Jesus Christ was the moment of victory. They had successfully manipulated Rome to eliminate the teacher from Nazareth, the greatest threat to their prestige and power. From the perspective of the disciples of Jesus, the death of their master and friend was a moment of profound horror and grief. The one they believed would usher in the kingdom of God had fallen victim to the system. He hung on the cross like a criminal, an outcast, helpless and powerless. They ran for their lives.
Three days later, their whole world changed. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead obviously thrilled the disciples' hearts; it also blew their minds. The resurrection of Jesus shattered all their preconceptions. It was so astonishing and so huge that it forced a reconstruction of their most basic ideas — ideas about God, about creation, about human history. Standing before Jesus, the crucified and risen Jesus, the disciples got a glimpse of something happening in his death that was so vast, it involved the whole cosmos. Far from seeing it as just another crucifixion, the disciples saw the death of Jesus as the moment of all moments, the axis upon which human history itself turned, the single point at which human existence was decisively altered. The New Testament is the record of their explosive joy and overflowing confidence and hope, on the one hand, and of their struggle, their mammoth struggle, to comprehend the staggering meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, on the other.
Today, two millennia after the crucifixion, we are still struggling to understand the meaning of Jesus Christ. The basic problem we face is that we all have our "baggage." As two people inevitably bring habits of living and relating into their marriage, we all bring habits of mind into our discussion of Jesus — whether we are aware of it or not. Growth in marriage most often involves becoming aware of our baggage, our habits, and aware of the way they create conflict with our spouses. Similarly, growth in our knowledge of Jesus involves an increasing awareness of the fact that we are imposing upon him our own ideas, forcing him to fit the mold of our preconceptions.
We all have "mental instruments" that we use to perceive and make sense of the world around us. These mental instruments are ideas and concepts, categories and assumptions, which function as a pair of glasses, as it were, through which we see and interpret everything that we encounter in our lives. Without these instruments or glasses, we would not be able to conceive of anything or know it in any meaningful way. It would be like dancing with someone in the dark. We would surely know that someone was present, but we would not be able to know who it was. We would not be able to "see" them, and thus to know them and enjoy their presence.
Our pair of glasses allows us to see and interact with — and to know and experience — life. But what if our pair of glasses has the wrong prescription? What if our mental instruments are skewed? The problem of knowledge lies right here, whether we are talking about two persons seeking to know one another in marriage, or a scientist seeking to know the nature of the atom, or a person seeking to know Jesus Christ. If we are to know anything as it is, and thus to have true knowledge of it, we must deal with our baggage, we must refine our mental instruments so that they are increasingly appropriate to the thing or person we want to know. Otherwise, we are incarcerating ourselves inside our own heads, and thus inevitably imposing our own ideas upon the world and the people around us — molding them into our own image.
The price tag in marriage on such imposition is the lack of intimacy and fellowship. For how could we ever come to "know" the other person, if we are in fact re-creating that person in our own image and relating only to the image we have invented? In science, the price of imposing our own ideas onto reality is the loss of discovery, with all its rewards. In Christian faith, it is the loss of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Molding Jesus in our own image is a singular disaster, for it is only in knowing the staggering truth about Jesus — who he is and what he has done for and with and to the human race — that we are set free from our bondage, into abounding life. The hope and joy we so desperately desire, the passion and courage, the dignity and freedom, the wholeness and fullness for which we long, are the fruit of knowing Jesus Christ. It is as we come to know him — the real Jesus, as he is in himself as the Father's beloved Son and the Lord and Saviour of the human race — that we are quickened with hope and freedom and inspired with a life and joy that are not our own.
It was the pearl, after all, that took away the breath of the merchant and thrilled his heart and moved him to sell everything he had to buy it (Matthew 13:45-46). The merchant was not acting out of religious duty; he was acting out of an encounter with something that had won his heart. To remove the pearl from the story is to leave the man with himself, where there is nothing present to inspire him, no glorious pearl to quicken his heart and move him. This is exactly what happens to us when we impose our own preconceptions upon Jesus Christ. We rob ourselves of "seeing" the pearl, the one thing in the universe that can quicken us and fill us with the life we do not have in ourselves.
As the granddaughter of the merchant could not possibly have lived on the inspiration of her grandfather's encounter, we cannot live on the joy of our ancestors' discovery of Jesus. We must come to know him for ourselves. Each generation must seek him and find him. Only then will we experience the quickening and the life and freedom that our souls crave. Herein lies the crisis point for each generation in the church. It is only by knowing Jesus that we are set free for life, yet the road to knowing Jesus requires that we acknowledge our baggage and deal with it. We must become aware of our habits of thought and examine our inherited ideas. This in itself is painful and costly, but it also runs the risk of exposing the wrongheadedness of cherished notions. In marriage, to acknowledge our baggage means running the risk of exposing family patterns that the family may prefer to keep swept under the carpet. In Christian faith, to examine our mental instruments, to bring our habits of thought, our ideas and categories into the open is to run the risk of revealing the inadequacies, or perhaps even the folly, of our inherited theology. To follow Einstein is necessarily to call Newton into question. But Newton was no small man on the periphery of Western thought.
Perhaps it is more than accidental that the first words of Jesus in John's gospel form a question: "What do you seek?" Is this not the question facing each new couple in marriage, and each new generation of scientists, and each new generation in the church? It is a simple question, really, but a loaded one. "What do you seek?" translates into: "Is it life that you want?" And implicit in this question is another: "Are you prepared to do what is necessary to find it?" Like it or not, marriage, science and theology live by repentance, by being willing to rethink everything we thought we knew, so that we can see more clearly and experience the liberation and joy and life of such clearer sight.
The price of Jesus Christ, as C. S. Lewis says, is to want him. The price of wanting him is willingness to have our minds converted. For we cannot know Jesus — and thus experience the sheer life and freedom that only such knowing produces — if we are projecting our own preconceptions upon him. In such a case, it is not the real Jesus that we know at all, but a figment of our own imaginations. Such a Jesus will forever fail to deliver the life we seek, as surely as a fake pearl would have failed to take the merchant's breath away. And such a Jesus leaves us with ourselves to manufacture the kingdom, which leaves us with a kingdom that is no more than we can create. We must be willing to bear the pain of grinding out a better prescription for our glasses. To refuse to do so, to call a halt to the process and leave our habits of mind unexamined, is to run the risk of missing Jesus Christ altogether and dooming ourselves to a life, a kingdom, a salvation of our own making.
Why Jesus Died
Why did Jesus die? Why was his death necessary? What happened in his death, and what does it mean for human experience and life? In personal relationships, in scientific enterprise and in Christian faith, and indeed in every sphere of human life, if we are to come to clear knowledge, we must seek to know things as they are in themselves. We are sentencing ourselves to mis-interpretation unless we get inside the dynamics that make a given thing what it is. In terms of events, such as the death of Jesus Christ, we must get inside the dynamics that created its necessity. We must understand the context of his death. Anything less inevitably short-circuits our vision of Jesus, which in effect leaves us with a "fake" Jesus, who is uninspiring and incapable of producing passion and life and wholeness. Clarity is not a luxury: it is a matter of life or death.
In the broadest terms, there are two great facts that set up the necessity of Christ's death and that function as its proper context. The first is the heart of God — and by that I mean both the purpose of God for us and the fire in God's belly that this purpose would be fulfilled at all costs. The death of Jesus Christ is part of a seamless movement that began in eternity with the Father, Son and Spirit and reached fulfillment with the exaltation of the human race in the ascension of Jesus — an exaltation to the right hand of God the Father Almighty. If we are to understand why Jesus died, what happened in his death and what it means for us today, we have to go back to eternity, to the astonishing decision of the Father, Son and Spirit to include us in their circle of shared life. For the reality that drives the coming of Jesus Christ and pushes him to the cross is the relentless and determined passion of the Father to have us as his beloved children. The first thing to be said about the death of Jesus Christ is that he died because God the Father almighty loves us with an implacable and undaunted and everlasting love, a love that absolutely refuses to allow us to perish.
The second great fact that sets up the necessity of Jesus' death is what the Bible calls "sin," the profound spiritual disease that infiltrated the human race in Adam. Sin threatened the destruction of creation and of God's eternal purpose for us. Jesus died because God the Father refused to give up his dreams for us, and because the only way for those dreams to be fulfilled, in the context of sin, was by recreating the human race through death and resurrection.
The Fire in God's Belly
Among the religions of human history and all their visions of God, what is it about the Christian vision of God that is distinctive? What sets it apart from other religious visions? There are at least two facts about the Christian God that are unparalleled: The first is the doctrine of the Trinity. The second is the humility of God. In no other religion do we have a god who stoops, a god who comes down to enter into human history in the most inconceivably personal way. But here in Christianity, we have a God who wants to be united with us, and who is prepared to humble himself and even to suffer to accomplish such a union. The gods of human imagination are indifferent towards the human race. Towering above us in their glory, they are distant and unapproachable — preoccupied with themselves and with things far more important than human existence. These gods exist in eternal separation from us, and whatever interest they take in human affairs serves their own ends.
The Christian God is the exact opposite. In marked contrast to the gods of human imagination, the Christian God is not self-centered, not a taker at all, but a giver, and he thoroughly despises the idea of being untouchable. From the very beginning, from before the beginning, God is not indifferent towards the human race or indecisive about its future. He has staggering plans for us. Indeed, the Christian God is preoccupied with us and our welfare, and determined to bless us with life and fullness and glory. The Christian vision of God is of a God who is eager to know us, eager to cross the chasm between the Creator and the creature, and eager to stoop down to us and lift us up so that we can share in everything that he is and has.
Such a vision of God is utterly unique. The human mind would never create a deity of such grace and humility and other-centeredness. The Christian God is interested in relationship with us, and not just relationship, but union, and not just union, but such a union that everything he is and has — all glory and fullness, all joy and beauty and unbridled life — is to be shared with us and to become as much ours as it is his. The plan from the beginning, in the Christian vision, is that God would give himself to us, and nothing less, so that we could be filled to overflowing with the divine life.
Part of what John means when he tells us that Jesus Christ is the Word of God (John 1:1,14) is that there has never been a moment in all eternity when God wanted to be without us. The man Jesus, the incarnate Son, is not an afterthought or an afterword. Jesus, the incarnate Son, the humanity of God, is the eternal foreword. The relationship, the union, the fellowship between God and humanity that was hammered out in Jesus Christ, is not a second plan: this union between God and humanity in Christ is the eternal plan of God, which precedes creation itself. God has always purposed to become flesh. This is his eternal Word, spoken out of his being and character as the God who loves, and is determined to bless us beyond all we can think or ask. "Not God alone, but God and man together constitute the content of the Word of God attested in Scripture."
Behind this vision of God stooping to enter into relationship, into union, with human beings in order to bless us, is the fact that God is Father, Son and Spirit. The Bible tells us that the Father loves the Son and that the Son loves the Father and that they share all things in the love and unchained fellowship of the Spirit. Nothing that could be said about God is more fundamental than this mutual love and this fellowship. God exists as Father, Son and Spirit in a rich and glorious and overflowing fellowship of acceptance and delight and passion and love. The dream of human existence begins right here in the unstifled fellowship and togetherness of the Father, Son and Spirit.
Everything else to be said about God is a variation on this theme, a description of this relationship of Father, Son and Spirit. When we talk about the love of God, we are talking about the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit. When we talk about the holiness of God, we are trying to describe the wholeness and purity and integrity, the beauty, of the fellowship of the Trinity. When we talk about the righteousness of God, we are talking about the sheer rightness of their relationship. When we talk about the fullness of God or the blessedness of God, we are talking about the unbridled life, the irrepressible joy and unspeakable goodness of the Father, Son and Spirit.
To believe in the Trinity means that we believe that God is a relational being, and always has been, and always will be. The doctrine of the Trinity means that relationship, that fellowship, that togetherness and sharing, that self-giving and other-centeredness are not afterthoughts with God, but the deepest truth about the being of God. The Father does not love himself; he loves the Son and the Spirit. And the Son does not love himself; he loves his Father and the Spirit. And the Spirit is not preoccupied with himself and his own glory; the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Giving, not taking; other-centeredness, not self-centeredness; sharing, not hoarding are what fire the rockets of God and lie at the very centre of God's existence as Father, Son and Spirit.
When Christianity says God, it says relationship. It says self-giving love expressing itself in boundless fellowship and joyous and untold unity. It does not say self-centered. It does not say removed, distant, detached, indifferent or austere. It does not say lonely or sad or bored or in need. When Christianity says God, it says Father, Son and Spirit existing in a relationship of acceptance and delight and self-giving love. And it says that this relationship, this overflowing and joyous fellowship, is the womb of the universe and of humanity within it.
The universe, our solar system, the earth, and humanity are not eternal. There was a time when they were "not." There was a time when there was nothing but the circle of the Holy Trinity. The world was not here, and humanity had no being, and no possibility of being. Creation — the birth and existence of the universe, of the earth and all its inhabitants, from the greatest to the lowest, from the most obvious to the invisible — was the act of the Triune God. Paul tells us that this creative activity followed a prior decision (Ephesians 1:4-5). Creation was the fruit of purpose, the outgrowth of a determined heart. Behind creation, figuring as the driving force of all divine activity, as the one thought at the forefront of the divine mind and the preoccupation of the heart of God, was the decision to give human beings a place in the circle of the Trinity. Before the blueprints for creation were drawn up, the Father, Son and Spirit set their heart and abounding philanthropy upon us. In sheer grace, the Triune God decided not to hoard the Trinitarian life and glory, but to share it with us, to lavish it upon us.
Why this is so, why God is this way, why the Father, Son and Spirit set the fullness of their love and lavish grace upon us and determined such a glorious destiny for us, can only be answered by peering into the mutual love of the Father and Son and Spirit. For in one way or another, the existence of everything, not least of every human being, finds its purpose in the deep and abiding love of the Triune God. That circle of love, that circle of intimacy and togetherness and fellowship, that circle of purity and mutual delight and eternal wholeness, is the matrix of all divine thought and activity.
The thought of sharing with others — the idea of giving, of including, of blessing — and the unrelenting determination that it would be so at all costs, flows directly out of the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit. Such love, such giving, such excessive philanthropy, such other-centeredness and self-effacing and sacrificial care are not unnatural for God. It is the way God is as Father, Son and Spirit. It is the truest truth about God, the deepest part of the well of divine being. But why the Triune God would turn such giving and care and lavish and determined love upon us, is another question. Such an astonishing act is consistent, perfectly consistent with the being of God as Trinity, but it is not necessary; there is no compelling reason that it should be directed toward us. Before such love, we can only stand amazed, astonished and thrilled. Christian faith begins with astonishment.
This decision flowing out of the being and character of God, this decision to share all that the Father, Son and Spirit are and have together with us, and the relentless determination that it would be so, is the true and proper context for the death of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died because the Father, Son and Spirit absolutely refused to go back on their dreams for us. "For God so loved the world," Jesus says, "that he gave his only Son…" (John 3:16). Before creation, the Triune God decided that the human race would be included in the Trinitarian circle of life and fullness and glory and joy. And with that decision came a fire in God's belly that it would be so no matter what it cost. The Lamb of God was slain indeed before the foundation of the world.
What was God's reaction when Adam fell into sin? What did God do when the human race and creation were plunged into ruin and began lapsing into nothingness? Did God throw up his hands and walk away, disgusted? Did he say to himself, "I knew they would do this, they deserve to perish, let them get what they deserve?" Did God explode with anger at Adam and Eve for the audacity of disobedience to him? Did he threaten vengeance? Did his blood begin to boil with plans of punishment and retribution? No. The Fall of Adam and Eve was met by the eternal Word of God. The disaster of Adam's sin, the chaos and misery, the brokenness and bondage of Adam's rebellion were met with an immediate and stout and intolerable divine "No! I did not create you to perish. I did not create you to flounder in misery, to live in such appalling pain and brokenness and heartache and destitution. I created you for life, to share in my life and glory, to participate in the fullness and joy, the free-flowing fellowship and goodness and wholeness that I share with my Son and Spirit. And I will have it no other way. It will be so."
Over 40 times, John tells us in his gospel that Jesus Christ was sent by God the Father. John saw that the coming of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, flowed out of the endless love of the Father for us and out of his unyielding determination that his purpose for us would be fulfilled. The death of Jesus Christ is the revelation of the fact that the Father has never abandoned us, never forsaken us, that he refuses to go back on his dream to include us in the circle of life. Jesus' death is part of the fulfillment of the eternal purpose of God, part of a seamless movement designed to lay hold of the human race, cleanse us of all alienation, and bring us home. For the Father will have it no other way. He will be "satisfied" with nothing less.