Part 1: Mark Stenberg asks, “When did the Good News become Bad News?”

When did the Good News (of Jesus Christ) become bad news? All of us who preach or teach or are passionate about the gospel in any way run across this question at some point in our ministries.

How could it happen that God’s wild outpouring of love given through Christ in the cross and resurrection turned itself into a story of a wrathful father seeking righteousness through the son’s death? This “good news to bad news” question is ubiquitous. It could come from the person sitting next to us on a plane, from a college student who has returned home over Christmas break, or even from one of the faithful in the pew.

Sometimes the smartest thing one can say arrives in the form of a question. A question can lay bare the heart of a problem without accusation. And this question of the good news becoming bad came to my good and smart colleague, Mark Stenberg. Broken open by God’s graciousness, having revealed to him this loving God that we know through Jesus Christ, he began listening in a new way to the primary story most of us are given as to why Christ had to die “for us.” And he realized that the story most of us are given comes to us this way. “Humans are really, really naughty. In fact, they are tainted by original sin. This elicits the wrath of a righteous God, whose justice is besmirched. The cross is the place of punishment. Jesus takes a beating so that his little brothers and sisters can get off the hook with their angry father.” Most of us were told this substitutionary view of atonement in one way or another.

It is an easy story to tell, and an easy story to pass on. It can be formulated into a set of “spiritual laws” that we can memorize and make converts with. But, since it is ultimately based on the fear of God’s wrath, it is not a sustainable story.

After thinking and studying people like Karl Barth, Martin Luther, Jürgen Moltmann, Catherine LaCugna, and Dr. Gary Simpson, Mark began to realize that the problem might lie in forms of monotheism in which the dynamic, relational dimension of the Trinity is swallowed up by a monotheism that circumvents the story of the cross in favor of a God of morality or “religious experience.” In our context, two forms of monotheism still pose a threat to the God revealed in the cross.

Moral monotheism, according to Gary Simpson, has been handed down from Immanuel Kant who casts aside the Trinity as an ancient and prosaic superstition. Moral monotheism reduces “Jesus to an archetype, a moral mentor for the conduct of reasonable persons.”1  This can show up in all sorts of “what would Jesus do?” conversations. And of course this answer can vary, depending upon what platform you choose to take, on issues ranging from abortion to how to deal with world hunger. But who wants a religion that turns out to be nothing more than a giant pop quiz that no one can get exactly right? If Jesus was merely a moral example, did he need to die on the cross?

Another way monotheism rears its distorted head is through experiential monotheism. Fredrich Schleiermacher, in a well-meaning attempt to make religion palatable for the cynical in his midst, puts forward the idea that Jesus is nothing more than a fully realized human being. What distinguishes him is the “constant potency of his God-consciousness.” Who among us hasn’t engaged in conversations about “spirituality” that seem only vaguely Christian, where Christ is an encouraging and soulful team leader, rather than a loving Savior? Why does Christ even matter if we can find that consciousness within ourselves?

These distorted monotheisms affect both liberal and conservative Christian alike; they simply manifest differently in various religious traditions and cultures. We may argue over the morality of the death penalty, or we may argue the issue of how to best care for the poor. We might collect angels for our windowsills, or we might explore how “we are one with nature.” The problem, Mark argues, is that underneath all of these ideas about God, is merely and only an idea. “You can’t explain an event with an idea” he says. And whether we affirm or reject it, most of us in our culture remove the event of God in the cross, an act of unabashed love for the world, and replace it with very poor explanation of why Christ had to die. Most of us, in some way or another, still buy into the substitutionary view of atonement, in one way or another.

So what is a God-loving, bowled-over by forgiveness and mercy, broken open by Christ’s revelation through the cross and resurrection kind of guy to do? How can a new understanding of God address both the moral and experiential misunderstandings of Christ that shows itself in both the liberal and the conservative camps? Mark has one answer: Part 2: The Recovery of the Trinity, which I’ll address in my next column.

1Gary Simpson, “No Trinity, No Mission: The Apostolic Difference of Revisioning the Trinity,” Word and World, Volume XVIII, Number 3, Summer 1998, 264-271.