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God Was Always There – A Response to J.R. Daniel Kirk

JR Daniel Kirk

J.R. Daniel Kirk

Let me begin by saying that Daniel Kirk is one of my favorite biblical scholars. I love not only his juicy mix of evangelical faith and critical scholarship but also his ability to communicate clearly and in ways that many people can understand. I have especially appreciated his work on Paul, and I eagerly anticipate his forthcoming christology.

So I am thrilled that he’s reviewed Did God Kill Jesus? on his blog, even if he finds faults with the book. I’m going to attempt to address his concerns here.

As Kirk admits, we have different vocations, and thus approach the issue of atonement differently. It may seem an internecine issue, but theologians and biblical scholars are distinct — we are trained differently in our doctoral programs, for instance, and the requirements for our dissertations are different. At Princeton, in two years of coursework, I did not take a single seminar with anyone from the biblical studies department, did not have to write a single paper of exegesis, and did not take any of my comprehensive exams on anything related to the Bible. I cannot speak to Kirk’s training, but doctoral candidates at Princeton in New Testament and Old Testament similarly took no seminars on theology, philosophy, or ethics. Call this a failing of the system if you wish, but I’m just explaining what I think is the heart of the issue.

Kirk says that I have ignored passages that would have problematized my work on the atonement, particularly Romans 5:8-11. He writes,

[T]he book ignores the verses (or the parts of the verses) that make it sound like God killed Jesus and/or that speak of Jesus’ death being, in part, our salvation from the wrath of God.

Let’s talk about Paul for a minute. In my book, Paul merits an entire chapter, and that’s more than any other author gets. And Paul’s letter to the Romans gets several pages, more than any other New Testament book. I have sections dedicated to explaining Romans 3 and Romans 7-8, which is more than any other chapters of any of biblical books get.

There’s a lot of Paul in the book.

But that’s still not enough Paul for Kirk. More Paul!, he cries! 🙂

On the other side, here’s a funny story: I was teaching a seminar on the atonement at a liberal seminary while I was writing the book. About halfway through the semester, a student raised her hand and asked, “Why do you keep talking about Paul?”

“Because Paul invented the atonement,” I said. “Without Paul, we wouldn’t be having this class.”

“Well,” she replied, “Our other professor told us that Paul was basically a misguided Jew, so we don’t have to take him that seriously.”

The thing is, mine is not a book about the Bible. It’s a book about God. Further, it’s not a book for the academy, it’s a trade book, for the general public. Therefore, I’m quite sure that biblical scholars like Kirk will likely be disappointed. But so will liberals who easily dismiss Paul as unimportant.

Let’s say that Paul is more important to me than the seminary student, but less important than he is to Kirk.

Paul is indeed deeply troubling. Without Paul, there’d be no Did God Kill Jesus?, because you surely can’t get that title or that question from the Gospels, and probably not from any other book except Hebrews (a troubling book if ever there was one).

But here’s what I find interesting about Kirk’s review, and it just might be a more telling difference between us than his Paulophilia. He writes,

I’m not convinced of Tony’s claim that God arrives just as Jesus dies in Matthew and Mark.

In a fascinating thread that broke out on Kirk’s Facebook page, he rightly notes,

The question inherent in the book’s title asks about God’s agency as the cause of Jesus’s death. If the crucifixion is an act that shows the love of the son-giving Father, then God must be active, causative agent in that death in some significant way, no?

He’s responding to David Opderbeck, who accuses Kirk of trying to squeeze my theological book into a historical-critical biblical framework. Kirk, in ways that smell of primitivism, argues that the Trinitarian answer to the question, Did God Kill Jesus?, is an early church cop-out. It’s not in the biblical text, he says.

Fair enough. The Trinity may well be a solution that the church came up with ex post facto, but that’s exactly the solution that I rely on. My book title is ultimately an attempt to point out the problem inherent in versions of the atonement that pit God against Jesus, especially for those of us who affirm that Jesus of Nazareth was God-in-the-flesh. In a telling comment, Kirk writes,

the book ignores the verses (or the parts of the verses)…

And that’s exactly what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to spill ink on “parts of verses” that seem to indicate that God set Jesus up. Why? Because the overarching thrust of the New Testament is that God and Jesus are united in purpose. This is clearly the message of Jesus over and over again, and it’s what leads to his consternation in the Garden on the night of his arrest. I will not be hamstrung by a verse (or a part of a verse) that contravenes this narrative truth. The Bible is rife with self-contradiction; we need to deal with it, but every book doesn’t need to truck in it.

That’s not to say that I don’t bring up passages that contradict my conclusion. I tried to do that over and over in the book, in the chapters on Paul and the other books of the NT, but also in my extended analysis of the “binding of Isaac” and the other sacrificial passages in the OT.

In the end, mine is christological solution to the problem of Jesus’ death. It’s a trinitarian solution. My solution is rooted in the text of the Bible, I’d argue, but not dictated by the Bible. I’ll have to wait for Daniel’s book on christology to see where we agree and where we differ. I imagine that he and I will have many fruitful conversations about this, online and in person.

OK, I could go on. But this response is already longer than Kirk’s review. I look forward to Part Two of his review.

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