It Ain't Over 'Till It's Over

It Ain't Over 'Till It's Over

Most Christians, if they have heard of Desiderius Erasmus at all, know of him as the man who helped put the Greek New Testament into the hands of churchmen in the sixteenth century and thus paved the way for the Reformation; or perhaps they recognize him as the great opponent of Martin Luther on the issue of the nature of the human will and faculty of judgment.  The exchange of 1524-25 was the sixteenth century clash of the Titans.   Yet the thing I hold most against Erasmus is not that he disagreed with Luther; indeed, had he not done so we would never have had Luther's towering accomplishment, The Bondage of the Will, and we would all thus be poorer. No, the greatest crime of Erasmus and his ilk is that they remove all of the encouragement from one of the passages in the Bible which should be most precious and encouraging to parents.  And that is hard to forgive.  Let me explain.

Erasmus, while a brilliant linguist and all-round scholar, was also an advocate for what one might call mere Christianity, a Christianity shorn of doctrinal complexity and precision and focused primarily on Christ as a good, practical example.   In arguing for this non-dogmatic `philosophy of Christ,' he looked to the second thief on the cross, as mentioned in the Gospel of Luke: the second thief was the great example of someone who had simply a nebulous trust in God and yet who was to make it into Christ's kingdom, as Jesus himself made clear.

The irony of Erasmus's understanding of this passage is that he was arguably his generation's single greatest student of the New Testament and yet his understanding of the second thief is embarrassing because he failed to construct his understanding on the basis of what the passage actually says.

Even a cursory glance at Luke 23:41-42 reveals that this second thief has a profound theology.  First, he fears God.   Yes, he is dying the same terrible death as the first thief as his body is slowly pulled apart under its own weight; yet he fears God.  It is the judgment after death that he dreads, not the physical death he is to experience on the cross.  One can only conclude that this man has a deep understanding of the holiness of God and its corollary, divine judgment.  Further, he understands that he is wicked and deserves to die.  In his speech, there is no hint of the self-pity that one sees in the first thief.  He acknowledges that he has been justly condemned.  He crossed the line, they have to hang him.  Then, while it would be a real stretch to say that he has a developed understanding of Christ's sinlessness, he does acknowledge that there is a qualitative difference between the punishment he is enduring and that of Christ: Christ has done nothing to deserve crucifixion.

Finally, in a moment of breathtaking theological insight, he asks Christ to remember him when he enters his kingdom.  Luke records three reactions to the cross that day: the first three (those of the religious rulers, the soldiers and the first thief) are all variations on the same theme: 'Jesus of Nazareth, if you are the king and messiah you claim to be, come down off the cross!'   Such reactions betray a worldly mindset: they can only conceive of the kingdom in terms of the world's logic and thus it can only be inaugurated by Christ escaping from death.  The second thief has an insight of genius: he knows that the kingdom is inaugurated by Christ going through death.  This is cross logic of the kind Paul develops in 1 Corinthians.

So when the adherents of mere Christianity use the second thief as their great example, they can only do so by ignoring what the text actually says: God's holiness, personal sin, the unjustified death of Christ and the coming of the kingdom through his death - these are sophisticated theological insights by any measure one cares to choose.  

So why is the failure to spot these a great disservice to parents?  To answer this we need to ask the question: where and when did the thief learn all these things.  There would seem to be three possibilities.  Two of them can be dispatched fairly quickly.  First, the information was beamed into brain in a kind of act of divine telepathy while he was hanging there on the cross.  The text gives no evidence of this so, while there is the possibility of such a miracle, which should not assume one where there is no hint of such.  We need rather in such circumstances to look for a more prosaic explanation.

Second, the comments made by Jesus on his way to Golgotha that day gave the thief enough material to construct his theology.  This is unlikely.  First, the thief is likely preoccupied with his own impending doom at that point; and, second, to understand Jesus' comments on the way to the cross that day as anything other than cryptic allusions, one would need a broader theological context.  Thus, the problem remains of where knowledge of this broader context originates.

My own theory is that this man learned his theology when he was younger, probably as a child.   There is no way he could think up such brilliant theological insights while hanging on the cross unless the basic building blocks had been laid in his soul at an early stage.   As the text gives no hint of a miracle at this point, my guess is that this man was well-schooled in scripture by his parents, either at home or at the local synagogue or both.  Then, as he hangs there that day, cursed between heaven and earth, he recalled all the things that his parents and rabbi had taught him.

This leads to my next question, indeed to the key question for understanding why Erasmus so cheats parents of an encouraging passage: when did all this material which his parents taught him become relevant?  Well, even he acknowledges he deserves to die so we can assume his theological knowledge was not particularly relevant to his life up until this point.  Indeed, it does not take a great feat of imagination to think that, if his mother was alive on that first Good Friday, she might have been sitting at home and  weeping.  As she lamented for her son, she would no doubt have been asking herself why she had bothered to spend so much time drilling good teaching in to him when it had had such little impact.

Yet as he hangs on the tree, the only things of any relevance whatsoever are the truths about God which his parent made sure he learned as a child.  Whatever else he learned - to read and write, to make bricks, to plough a field, to carve wood or whatever - all of this is now just so much irrelevance.  The only things that matter are the things that relate to the great king and his coming kingdom.

This should have a twofold impact upon us.  First, it should make us think very self-critically about what we consider to be truly relevant.   There is so much talk today of this doctrine or that teaching being `irrelevant.'  What is typically meant by such comments is that the doctrine in question seems to have no immediate practical pay-off in the here and now of the culture.  The Trinity is irrelevant because it does not solve poverty; hell is irrelevant because it gets i the way of people feeling good about themselves; justification is irrelevant because it does not cure my depression or pay my bills or help me achieve my life goals.  Relevance is too often a function both of the here and now and the material conditions of the world or, even worse, my world.  The second thief reminds us that ultimate relevance is a function of eternity: the church is here to prepare people to meet their Maker; and the "relevance' of her teaching and worship must ultimately be judged by the criteria of the eternal.

Second, this passage should be an immense encouragement to parents.  As a parent, you cannot save your child.  You can only teach them God's truth and pray that they will come to believe it for themselves. Then, having done all this, you may see them wander away from the faith.  It is unlikely that many of us will se quite the dramatic wandering that the second thief's parents saw; but nonetheless any child's rejection of Christianity will be painful to the parents, however decent and upright the child otherwise is.

But the message of this passage is ultimately an encouraging one.   Erasmus may have thought he was producing a kinder, gentler Christianity by recruiting this passage for his vision of a non-dogmatic Christianity, but actually he was stealing from Christian parents one of the most encouraging passages in all of scripture.  As with our congregations so with our children: we teach Bible truths because they are true and not because they have fleeting relevance to the passing moment.  We should be satisfied that they are relevant to the only moment that really matters; and we should take heart that, whatever our children choose to do with their lives, it ain't over until it's over.