“Calvary cries out more clearly than any theology textbook: We do not know our God.” ~ Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel
This past week I was again asked about cremation for Christians. It is a common question, because tradition has taught against cremation. Yet the bible never outlaws it directly. The confusion comes from two angles. The first reason roots in the truth that in the last days we will all be raised. But God can raise the dust from cremation as easily as He can raise the dust from a coffin (which assumes He will even use our physical forms to create our new bodies – “They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies.” 1Cor 15:44). Second, and more popular argument, is from the Old Testament which issues punishments by fire for certain sins (For example: The specific punishment for Achan in Joshua 7, the general punishment for the daughter of a Priest became a prostitute – Lev 21:9. Was that so common it became a law?! Crazy PKs…). Through these scriptures cremation was outlawed for the Jews (and is currently today) as well as in Christian tradition. In recent days cremation has become more acceptable (the Catholic church dropped it ban in 1963).
Of course you may read my first paragraph and ask why cremation is acceptable? Someone could say, “Even if cremation is not outlawed, as a punishment for sin, it should be avoided.” But this brings me to my point.
To often as Christians we read the scriptures in search of rules. As though we are still Jews. And we should read scripture always through the lens of Christ.
(Taking the scenic route to prove my point.) Many people will rant about one side or the other when it comes to the 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. And I have decidedly taken a position, but it not for reasons often stated. For me the major issue lies with the section on Scripture. In this section the 2000 deleted a crucial phrase, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” (Click on the image to see a picture of side comparison – I highlighted the specific change.)
This may seem like a minor change. After all it is only a few words. But whenever we lose sight of Christ, we miss the point. We miss the point of life, but we also miss the point of scripture. Both the Old and the New Testament are telling a story. Salvation story. A story where Christ is the decisive moment. Everything else does not matter without Him!
So we approach scripture reading it through the lens of Jesus. That God became man, to save the world. That this salvation came through submission to the most excruciating act of violence and evil. When we take away this lens, we fall back into the law of works. We begin to believe we could earn our way. We begin to wonder if we are good enough. We start to worry about the truth of grace…
Does God really love us? What if I make the wrong decision about this or that? What if my husband wants to be cremated? …
But when we read scripture threw the lens of Christ the creation story becomes much more potent. It not a debate about timelines, but a story of how God brought the world to life. And it was created just as He desired. We view creation as out of control, but this is not unexpected to God. The Father knew what He was doing – making – building – speaking into existence. He was not and is not surprised.
He could have changed things. He could have made another world – where different path could have been taken. He could have built a world that would not require sacrifice…
But He created a world that required HIM TO DIE for salvation!
Through the lens of Christ, creation says something about God. When he could have made a world that just required spoken forgiveness (after all He spoke the world into being), instead He choose a world that took Him to the cross. A world where salvation could only come through excruciating pain and humiliation. This says something about God.
Brennan Manning’s quote from the beginning is correct. “We do not know our God.” But this does not create fear. Instead it creates awe and leaves us standing with the Angels who cry “Holy”. God is entirely greater than we expected. In the cross we begin to realize that John was not grasping at straws, but stating the only sure thing, “God is love” (1Jn 4:8).
He is radical, incomparable, unrelenting… but rather than destroy us – He choose to destroy Himself. That we may have the opportunity for life.
Hence “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
A brilliant, but deep read on this subject is The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays. He argues for an even smaller lens of interpretation by making the cross of Christ the criterion.