Friday, 22 November 2013

A review of the Scriptural influence on the Doctrine on Redemptive Suffering in Christian Theology, with Particular Reference to the Period of Exile of the Hebrew People.

Following the reign of King Solomon, the united kingdom of the Hebrew peoples divided into the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. After a series of kings failed to uphold the commands given by God through the law, and refused to heed the warning of the prophets, these kingdoms are allowed to enter into captivity to Assyria and Babylonia respectively. It is this period of captivity which we are referring to by ‘the exile’. For the sake of brevity, we will not unnecessarily delve into the details of the exile for the two kingdoms, except so-far-as it is pertinent to our understanding of redemptive suffering. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines redemptive suffering as a participation in the saving work of Jesus Christ (CCC 1521) in line with St Paul’s declaration that through suffering ‘in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’ (Col 1:24, NRSVACE).

In a talk on the Jewish Experience of Suffering, Ronald C. Kiener (Professor of Religion at Trinity College, Connecticut, USA) explains his understanding of the suffering servant narrative found in the book of Isaiah: ‘Yet when we ask of the Jewish religious tradition, who is this suffering Servant of which Second Isaiah speaks? The answer is two-fold – first, it is the faith-people Israel who suffers for the sake of each other and for the glory of God. The suffering servants are the men and women, the hapless leaders and the pious followers, the Judenrate and the ghetto dwellers, the spoiled prince Moses and the slaves of Goshen – every one who is corporately and individually a Jew. But a second answer to the question: who is the suffering Servant? Is also found, even in pre-Christian Judaism: he is the suffering Messiah, yet to arrive.’ The Messiah is understood to have to suffer, somehow to help the chosen people of God and give glory to God.  To the modern Christian, Isaiah’s account points forward to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. John Calvin explained that ‘the sufferings of Christ are the means of forgiveness of sin and eternal glory’ [emphasis added]. Martin Luther goes further, comparing knowing Christ to knowing God hidden in suffering (The Heidelberg Disputation, proof 21).

The Baptist clergyman, Dr. Martin Luther King, offered a pledge of hope to the listeners of his most famous speech saying, ‘unearned suffering is redemptive’. He thereby demonstrates the idea that the while the sufferings of Christ are held to be definitive (cf. 1 Pet 3:18), Christian suffering can be mystically united to that same suffering of Christ himself as taught in the above passage from the Catholic Catechism. This is in line with first Jewish interpretation of the suffering servant offered by Kiener. We would like to suggest that the root of the good flowing from suffering is found in pre-Christian Judaism. As early as Deuteronomy, Moses is shown to fast for the sake of the sins of the Israelites following the incident of the golden calf at Mount Sinai (Deut 9:15-20). During the time of the united kingdom, the tormented King Saul says to his successor King David, ‘If it is the lord who has stirred you up against me, may he accept it as an offering’.

Having considered the basic understanding of redemptive suffering, as well as demonstrating the presence of the idea in early writings in the Hebrew Bible, let us now consider the specific time period known as the Babylonian and Assyrian exile. The time of exile was one of suffering, but one can argue its importance in the process of Jewish history. It was predominantly during this time of exile that the scriptures, in particular the Torah, are commonly thought to have been finalized by the Jewish people as a means of holding on to their identity in foreign land. According to the documentary hypothesis, the priestly source (P) was likely complied during the Babylonian exile, and Lawrence Boadt explained its purpose was “to help people maintain their faith in Yahweh even when all seemed lost” through showing the people the aspects of their faith that remained valid (Reading the Old Testament, an introduction. Pg.103). Along with this rediscovery of the scriptures, the Jews benefited from a renewal of the role of prophecy as God called men and women to declare His truths and promises afresh to the people of the time. We will consider these particular events which came out of the time in exile, as while as the exile as a whole.

Due to their suffering, the Jews looked to the scriptures and their oral traditions for a source of hope, and this disposed them to hear the prophets of their age. The main aim of a prophet was to speak divine truth to the people, in order to lead the people back to God (2 Chronicles 24:19). The rise of prophecy during the Babylonian exile provided a means for the people of Israel and Judea to be encouraged to remain faithful to God. However, we also want to suggest that the people were disposed to listen to the word of the Lord through prophets in their exile. Through the simple human desire to maintain their cultural identity and tradition in foreign land, the religious sense of the Jewish people awakened in this time. Hence, they were more open to follow the commands of the Law – they were suffering hardship already, and this leads to a desire to find consolation in the place where they are already longing. Scripture tells us that hard-heartiness is a barrier to redemption (Romans 2:5); their openness in the exile therefore aids the Hebrew’s redemption.

Daniel contains the prophecy of seventy weeks (Dan 9:24-27) in which Gabriel not only promises an end to the then present suffering of the Hebrew People, but it declares its purpose. The people were suffering in order to to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.” (Dan 9:24 NRSEACE). Their suffering is bound to atonement to their sins, serving as a means to purge them of their sins.  This text prefigures the formation of the doctrine on redemptive suffering. In the same way that although sin leads to death, it through death (of Jesus Christ) that sin is overcome, the suffering of the Jews is both a consequence of their unfaithfulness (2 Kings 17:18-20) and a means to return to right-relationship with the Lord.

Even the fact that the exile lead to the start of the Diaspora (dispersion of the Jews) shows the providence of God through the time of exile, for without the Exile the Jews may have remained isolated and had little impact on global affairs. Yet, the role of the Chosen People was to be a kingdom of priests, that is to say, they should lead the other nations to faith in the True God.  This came about at the time of suffering in exile, yet arguably it did not come about though their suffering. Redemptive suffering is not the notion that good can come from a place of suffering, but more to say that the suffering in itself causes the good. The Diaspora came through the exile, and the exile was a cause of suffering, but the suffering in exile could not have caused it (for the exile was ipso facto prior to the suffering). The reason it is mentioned here is to refine our understanding of the nature of redemptive suffering, and also to show that God had not abandoned His people through the exile and thus the claim that He utilized their sufferings is not illogical.

It should be admitted that the doctrine held on redemptive suffering is not a novel idea, nor is it utterly repugnant to sacred scripture, but these points notwithstanding, may do not embrace the doctrine. It must be kept in mind that forgiveness of sin is an unearned grace of God – as the Anglican Catechism (Book of Common Prayer, 1979, Episcopal USA) says on the Sacraments ‘Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.’ We therefore haste to make assurances that orthodox supporters of this doctrine do not intend to claim that anyone can be forgiven of personal sins through suffering. Suffering could dispose persons to repentance, but this is secondary. What the doctrine does say is that suffering in earthly life can aid the sanctification and purification of souls to admit them to heaven. Among almost all Christians it is agreed that Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection completely paid the price of the sins of humanity – the manner in which this redemption is freely received is sometimes disputed among Christians. However, to suggest that suffering leads to sanctification seems to negate the work of the Holy Spirit. According to this view, suffering remains meaningless, other than in the exceptional case of Jesus Christ; even here some will argue the importance of the resurrection surpasses the suffering He experienced. In the account of the fall in the first book of Moses, toil and pain proceed from the original sin of Adam and Eve, and hence in line with various other examples in scripture (Moses’ prevented from entering the promised land, death of David and Bathseba’s illegitimate son, etc.) some protestant theologians (such as Mary Eddy who taught that sickness is error) hold that an individual’s suffering is a consequence of their personal sin, hence it is merely a means to convert rather than being useful in sanctifying the soul.

In answer to this, we can point to places in scripture where people sin and do not suffer directly. Psalm 103 sums this up in saying ‘He does not deal with us according to our sins’ (Ps 103:10 NRSVCE). And a point could be made in the case of Job – he was blameless and upright (Job 1:1) and yet God allowed him to suffer lost of oxen and donkey (1:15), sheep and servants (1:16), camels (1:17) and his sons and daughters (1:19). Further, in claiming that suffering can be redemptive, it is not thought to be the case that all suffering is in fact redemptive. If that were true, then the claim that the teaching on redemptive suffering impinges on the dogmas held on the sovereignty and free work of the Holy Spirit could be valid. The difference is that according to proponents of redemptive suffering, one must co-operate with God through the suffering: continuing to trust in Him and to unite oneself to the sufferings of Jesus Christ through prayer. The doctrine is simply expounding a method of co-operating with divine grace freely offered to all people for the sanctification of their souls (c.f 1 Tim 2:4)

While the doctrine on Redemptive suffering is clearly a teaching that has developed from many sources throughout Sacred Scripture as well as in the history of the Christian Church, we also believe that the period of exile in the biblical narrative played an important role in this teaching. While we feel the doctrine would likely have come into existence without this period of Salvation History being taken into account, however through texts such as Daniel 9 a fuller expression of it has been possible. Although the rise in prophecy during the exile could be circumstantial to the suffering, the divine revelation provides the reader with an insight into the meaning of present temporal suffering, and the role that it might play in personal salvation. Above all, let the words of St Paul be remembered, ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.’ (Rom 8:8)

 (c) M. Fenn, 2013. As with all things the copyright is solely mine, unless clearly otherwise! I used the Tao of Physics (Fritjof Capra) and Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis) as reference texts along side those quoted directly above.

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