We live a time of change, uncertainty, and transformation. A hundred years (more or less) seems a good time to re-visit the Fundamentals. So much has changed culturally, historically, and theologically that there seems little more than historical interest in re-visiting them. Yet, since we are in a period of change and transformation in our time as the church was a century ago, a look at what “fundamentals” might be and mean in our time seems in order.
The “Fundamentals” a century ago claimed and reasserted the historical reality of five pillars of the Christian Faith: the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the historical reality of his miracles, substitutionary atonement, and Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead.
While the shape and character of debates about these matters has changed significantly in the last hundred years, it is possible to reformulate those concerns in light of what has changed.
The inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.
The concern of the first Fundamentals here was with the truth and reality of the Bible as God’s Word to humanity. While inspiration and inerrancy do not loom large (outside of conservative circles) these days, their concern remains as vital as ever and much contested. I would reboot this concern by suggesting we pursue the “big picture” of the Bible (Gen.1-2; Rev.21-22) as the ultimate horizon of interpretation in a narrative mode as readers called to “improvise” the truth and reality of its stories and message in their own time and place.
The Virgin Birth
The second Fundamental speaks to the truth and reality that God has become one of us. It no longer seems necessary to insist on the literal truth of the Virgin Birth as a Christian benchmark. After all, Mark, John, and Paul can proclaim the “Gospel” without recourse to it. The PCUSA’s A Declaration of Faith (ch.4, par.1) gets this concern right, I think.
“We affirm that Jesus was born of woman
as is every child,
yet born of God’s power
as was no other child.
In the person and work of Jesus,
God himself and a human life
are united but not confused,
distinguished but not separated.”
“Born of woman as is every child, yet born of God’s power as no other child.” That’s what we need to affirm loud and clear. We can disagree about the precise significance of nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, but we cannot disagree that Jesus is who the Declaration declares him to be. A Jesus who is only “a slob like one of us” (Joan Osbourne), a prophet, a spiritual guru whose relation to God is as pure and transparent as can be, or a resplendent being just short of God (Arians), won’t do. We need God to come to us and do for us what we can’t and won’t do for ourselves! And that’s what a contemporary Fundamental would claim today.
The Miracles of Jesus
Defending Jesus’ miracles in the first Fundamentals was a matter of certifying their historicity and thus proclaiming him as divine, as a performer of divine miracles. Today, however, most scholars agree that Jesus performed at least some miracles and exorcised demons. He was not unique in this however. Other miracle-workers and exorcists also prowled that ancient world devotees of various sects and faiths. That Jesus did the same only locates him within that set of folks in his world.
It is what these deeds of power mean within Jesus’ own story of Israel and his conviction that he was its messiah where we will find the sharp edge of his significance here. I note two aspects of that significance here:
-Jesus’ miracles redefine the kind of “battle” he as messiah wages against God’s enemies. Healing is not something messiah was expected to do in Jewish thought. His mission was more martial – driving the oppressor out of Israel – and rebuilding the temple and raising Israel and its God back to first place atop the heap of the nations. Healing signifies that his work as messiah is first and foremost about giving and nurturing life and wholeness. The exorcisms drive out the enemy, restoring the possessed to full life and social communion. The temple he rebuilds is that of his body (Jn.2:22) and comes by way of death and resurrection to blossom out into a temple wherein all may meet God and become part of bearing his presence everywhere and to everyone.
-The healing miracles suggest even more, however. In the ancient world the images of god designed for residence in a temple followed protocols involving ritual empowerment of the image’s (or idol’s) limbs, ears, eyes, mouth, and invoking a breath of life to animate it as an embodiment of that faith’s deity. What does Jesus heal most frequently in the gospels? Limbs, ears, eyes, mouth, and granting a breath of life to those deceased. Since human beings are God’s images, this healing activity points to Jesus as the one who heals those images of God damaged and defaced by the Fall to restore them to their primal dignity as God’s creatures and vocation as his royal representatives throughout creation and priests caring for each other and the flourishing of creation itself.
This concern of the third Fundamental can be reformulated as an answer to this question: Has new life, the life that only God can give, entered and changed our world? Jesus’ miracles answer that question “Yes” but not a simply divine acts of power. Rather, they answer it in the specific terms of the story of Israel and Jesus’ transfiguration of its hopes and expectations.
As originally posited, this Fundamental articulated a theory of “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Jesus’ death protects us from the wrath of an angry and vengeful Father whose law or honor had been sullied by human sin. We could never atone or repay the debt we owed God and were under threat of death and damnation. Jesus, however, comes to die for to repay the debt that only he as a divine-human mediator could and offers his death as satisfaction to the Father thus preventing the outpouring of (justly) deserved wrath. This view has been exposed as unfaithful to the biblical story, principally at the point where it has Jesus and the Father acting out of different motivations. The Father’s main aim is to satisfy his justice and wounded honor. The Son’s main aim is to shield and save us from the Father’s wrath. This violates our Christian Trinitarian understanding of God which says the works of the Father, Son, and Spirit are undivided. They cannot be set at cross purposes (pun intended) to each other. The Son’s coming and going to the cross for us out of love to save us was the Father’s idea and he and the Son (along with the Spirit too) are of one heart, mind, and agreement on it.
The concern here, inadequately expressed as it was, is God’s love for his creatures and creation. And that means Trinity. For God cannot be love is God is a solo, solitary, monadic like being. Love requires an “other” to love. Otherwise it is self-love, narcissism. The Christian God, who is “always and at the same time” (A Declaration of Faith, ch.5, par.8) the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit is God precisely in his internal relations as Father, Son, and Spirit endlessly receiving and returning love one to the other. God as triune love is other-directed; this is who he is (1 Jn.4:8). Thus we may be sure that we are called into being, cared for, loved to the uttermost even in the extremity of our rebellion against and indifference to God, and his sovereign love will see us through to the good end he has for us!
Bringing all this back to atonement, the one thing that must be said above and beyond all else is that atonement means reconciliation. In the big picture this means that Paul’s vision of Christ as the one under whom God will order all people and things is the ultimate horizon of our hope. In smaller pictures this means that each and every human being is called and claimed by God in Christ and wooed to return through him to their Creator and Redeemer. God and humanity together forever in communication, communion, and community on this new earth nurtured to its full flourishing (which we cannot even begin to imagine).
The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus
Resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, is the final concern of the Fundamentals. Again, the original’s emphasis is on facticity. For our time this concern opens up several lines of reflection. First, we have learned since then what history can and cannot do. It cannot provide us with absolute certainty. History works with probabilities. And while N. T. Wright may well be correct that Jesus being raised from the dead is the most plausible historical answer to what happened that first Easter weekend, the certainty and reality of the resurrection comes for us as it did the first disciples by encountering the risen Lord in all the mystery of his resurrected life. Trust is the resurrection, then, can perhaps be bolstered by evidence but it cannot rest on it. Only the risen One himself can present himself to us in a way that renders evidence moot and engenders the cry “My Lord and My God” (Jn.20:28).
A second line of reflection begins with the Jewish expectation of a general resurrection of dead at the time of God’s great intervention to set all things right (the “Day of the Lord,” the “end”). When God raised Jesus from the dead in “the middle of time” (so to speak), that meant for Jews (and us!) that the end was upon us! God’s great act to set all things right was accomplished by Jesus who was then vindicated and validated as messiah and world ruler by his resurrection. The first Easter is thus the fulcrum on which history rests as it turns from the old age where sin and death rule to the new age of God’s shalom. We live, as the rest of the New Testament insists, in the “end times” because Jesus has been raised from the dead. And because he has been raised, his people can begin to live the life of the “then and there” in the “here and now”!
One final line of reflection on resurrection takes us in a very different yet vital direction. In the Apostles’ Creed we confess faith in “the resurrection of the body.” The dualism between the material realm and the spiritual realm, with the latter superior to the former and everlasting, while the former is deficient, inferior, or evil and destined to be destroyed is so pervasive and worked into the fabric of the western world – thanks, Plato – that it seems self-evident and unquestionable. Yet, it is thoroughly alien to the outlook of the Bible in which Redemption is but the fulfilling of Creation!
Jesus received a new body at his resurrection. He was not a disincarnate spirit. And neither are we. We too will receive resurrection bodies. They will be far more than we can imagine a body to be now, but they will be bodies! And life on God’s new creation will doubtless be far more than we can imagine either. Yet it will be life on this planet.
We often confuse what we have come to call life after death with the Christian understanding of resurrection. Yet the two could not be more different. N. T. Wright puts it cleverly: resurrection is about life after life after death. Even as Jesus bears his humanity throughout eternity, so too will we.
Modern science has long moved beyond this dualism and recognizes the fundamental interconnection of all things. It’s time the church too moves beyond the material – spiritual dualism and recognize the unity of all things in Christ.
The truth and reality of God’s Word, that God has come to be with us and one of us, that new life leading to transformation has been given to us, that God’s disposition and actions toward us are love, that he is for us, and that we have hope, body and soul hope - for experiencing all that God intended for us in creation in this life as well as the life to come – these I propose are responsible reflections of the concerns of the original Fundamentals. They constitute as well matters at the very heart of what the gospel wants to say to our 21st century world. They don’t say everything necessary. The Spirit and the church are at best implicit, which point to a lack in the original Fundamentals that we would consider as essential and necessary today. But nonetheless they offer us an excellent starting point for theology today!