Wednesday, June 13, 2012

from The Christ - He Is Not the Savior of the Fallen

by John Shelby Spong

I have become convinced that the traditional and primitive claim that involves the concept of “original sin” has got to go! This mythological misunderstanding was based on the assumption that human life began perfect, but that we had our perfection destroyed by our disobedience, which left us separated from God. This was our “original sin” and no human life escapes its effects. In the light of all we know about the origins of life “original sin” has first become quaint, then bankrupt and finally harmful and destructive of our humanity. The Christianity of the future must jettison this outdated idea if it intends to live and to participate in the world that is emerging in the 21st century.

This will not be an easy transition for the Christian Church or for individual Christians to make. The concept of “original sin” has been so deeply instilled into the heart of the way that Christianity has defined itself, that for many people abandoning “original sin” feels like abandoning Christianity itself. The task before Christian leaders is therefore the task of developing a compelling new understanding of Christianity that can provide an alternative to this former understanding. This alternative will have to be far more radical and far more extensive than most people in the church can now even imagine. It will also have to be positive and in touch with what we know of the origins of life.

Neither Mark, who wrote the first gospel in the early years of the 8th decade, nor Matthew, who wrote the second gospel in the middle years of the 9th decade, used the title “savior” for Jesus. So, we can surmise, that “savior” was still not the title of choice for Jesus when the 9th decade of Christian history arrived. The word “savior” makes its first appearance in Christian writing in the Gospel of Luke, a work written in the late 9th to early 10th decade of Christian history, somewhere between the years 88-93. Luke uses the word “savior” twice. The first time is in the song sung by Mary called “The Magnificat.” There she says “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.”  Note that the first biblical use of the word “savior” is not a reference to Jesus, but to God! The second Lucan use of the word “savior” does apply to Jesus and is found in the song of the angel in Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus: “for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The only other use of the word “savior” as a name for Jesus in the gospels comes in John’s story about the Samaritan woman by the well who, after her conversation with Jesus, returned to her village and announced that “This is the savior of the world” (John 4:42).

Both of these gospel uses of the word “savior” could better be translated “messiah,” for they are references to the messianic function of bringing about the “Kingdom of God” on earth in which the Jewish people would be rescued from such perils of history as slavery, defeat, exile and oppression. In the Hebrew Scriptures to ask God to save meant to save the Jewish people from the clutches of an enemy, a natural disaster or a personal tragedy. It was never a reference to being saved from one’s sinfulness or one’s fall from an original perfection.

It is not until one gets to the Pastoral Epistles (I & II Timothy and Titus) and the General Epistles (I & II Peter, I, II & III John and Jude), all of which are dated from about 90 to about 135 C.E., that the word “savior” comes to be applied regularly to Jesus. These are the biblical data that cause me to question just how this title “savior” comes to be the one by which Jesus is primarily known today. It clearly was not the original way the disciples thought about him.

To see human life as distorted, fallen and in need of a “savior” is an idea that does not get attached to Jesus until the 4th century and was, I submit, the contribution of a man named Augustine, who was the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, and whose writings shaped Christian thinking for about a thousand years.  It is his view of the origins of human life and the birth of sin that still infect the Christian message in 2012.

Augustine collapsed the two competing creation stories in the book of Genesis into a single narrative to form the background for telling the Christ story. From the first story (Gen. 1:1-2:3) he got his sense of the original perfection of the world and all that is within it. That story says that God created the world in six days and when God had finished, God looked out on all that God had made and pronounced it not only good, but complete. Human life, this story says, shared in this perfection for in the “image of God,” the man and the woman were fashioned.

From the second creation story (Gen. 2:4 -3: 24) Augustine got his understanding of human rebellion, disobedience and the fall into sinfulness. Eve, tempted by the serpent, ate the “forbidden fruit” then fed it to Adam and “their eyes were opened.” God’s creation was ruined by this act of disobedience. Their sinfulness resulted, according to this primitive story, in the banishment of the original human family from God’s presence in the Garden of Eden. It caused human distress from the woman’s pain in childbirth to the man’s need to gain his daily bread from the soil of the earth. The ultimate punishment for this act of disobedience was death. The fact that everyone died meant two things to Augustine. First, it meant that everyone shared in the fall and, second, that sin was universal and original. It could not be escaped. It was part of the “being” of human life into which we were born. We needed to be saved from it, redeemed from it, rescued from it. That was the human condition. In order to free the world from its sinfulness the “savior” had to be external to the world.

That became Augustine’s frame of reference and into that frame, he told the story of Jesus. Messiah no longer meant the one who would usher in the Kingdom of God on earth but the one who would save human life from the fall and from the power of original sin.

Once we understand that the word “savior” as used in standard Christian liturgy is a human invention, it follows that Jesus’s murder was not required to enable God to eradicate original sin.  And it cannot mean, “Jesus died for my sins.”

When one pulls out this central plank of the Christian story, then the whole superstructure of doctrine, dogma, creeds and liturgy collapses.  That is when we know that we must “think different” and “accept uncertainty.”  The future of our Christian Church depends on our doing just that.  So we will continue to develop these new themes as this series continues.

1 comment:

  1. First: Genesis chapters 1 & 2 are not separate stories of two different creations. If I understood that incorrectly please forgive me. Chapter One is forward and introduction of God to us. The "who" of both God and humans; where only the important facts are highlighted.
    Chapter Two is the giving of the details and the rest of the story continuing on to the final chapter, of both the "story" and this world.
    Second: Why would anyone want to jettison following Christ in favor of participating in this world?
    Third: Who is Jesus to you if not our/your
    What was the point of His having come to earth and dying on the cross? As the angel told Joseph, "And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus: for He SHALL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS."? (Matthew 1:21) If not "real" sin, then what was the angel referring to?
    Fourth: By "saving" us from sin, is it not possible that "...He made Himself SIN for us, who new no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." (II Corinthians 5:21)? Which brings to mind this question-- what do you think "sin" is? or was?
    Fifth: Was dying the final death of separation from God not an act of salvation? He was saving us that penalty. To consider otherwise is to accept the lie of the serpent, satan/Lucifer/the dragon, etc..
    Sixth: It was not "disobEdience" their eyes were opened to it was their "dis-OBAISIANCE" -- their lack of believing the words and telling of the results of choosing away from truth and into lies/death."
    That word means to "give up to", to "give over to", to "surrender to", to "give deference to". The word OBAY is to defer to a higher authority (as in knowledge, experience,understanding, and wisdom)to trust what is not known by us but is by another. Obaisiance: deference to God, who has ALL knowledge and authority. Not "mind Me or else" authority, but the authority of His knowledge, wisdom, understanding, yes, experience. That original pair chose to not trust in One they knew in order to trust one they knew not. God is the source of Life, Lucifer is the source of death. They chose death over Life. How smart is that?
    Remember, Jesus said, " [one] man cometh unto the Father but by Me." (John 14:6(b)) If He has not saved us, from everlasting nothingness/death, then who?