The Passion and The Cross – A Review

From time to time, a book falls into my hands that is outside of my ordinary pool of reading resources. Such is the case with Ronald Rolheiser’s The Passion And The Cross. It comes with glowing reviews from the likes of Walter Brueggemann and Richard Rohr. And so as you may have guessed by that, Rolheiser is a Roman Catholic priest. He serves with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. As the blurb on the back of the book states: He “is an internationally renowned speaker and spiritual writer.”

Let me note at the outset that in reflecting upon the book, after reading it all – some parts several times over, I come away with the impression that if I were to meet this guy, I would really like him. He oozes compassion and obviously wants to bless people. I particularly enjoyed a number of his insights into Christ’s sufferings in Ch. 1. I was challenged to reflect on those sufferings more pointedly in terms of Christ’s own humanity; an oft neglected factor in modern Evangelicalism where the emphasis can be overloaded on the divine side to the neglect of His humanity. This imbalance was one of the first heresies the early Church had to face. It is called: Docetism.

That said, I did come away with a number of very serious concerns. Concerns which do not at all stem directly from the author’s Catholicism. The bigger problem(s) which I’ll endeavor detail some below – are shared by much current Evangelical Protestant writing as well. Hence my heightened alarm.

I would break my concerns down to 4 primary areas, and will give you some examples below, and why they are problematic to me. And I would ask all of my brothers and sisters in Christ to be on the alert for the very same issues I cite here, in so many popular Evangelical books, podcasts, teaching series and even preaching. My reading this book made me want to sound the alarm afresh for those in our own camp.

So, the 4 areas I had issues with are:

1 – His general handling of the Scripture, where he often uses a verse or phrase (even just a word) as a jumping off point, without considering it in context. Once again this is a serious problem in much popular Protestant and Evangelical preaching, teaching and writing today too. It is as though a verse, passage or even word is used to buttress an idea he wants to get across, rather than endeavoring to simply teach what the Bible itself is trying to teach.

2 – His understanding of redemption or salvation. (Here, his Catholicism may be a factor) The Gospel.

3 – His understanding of the character of God and its implications.

4 – His complete lack of any reference to judgment for sin or for a call to repentance and faith in Christ’s atoning death on the Cross.  

1 & 2 – Handling of Scripture. There are several ways this plays out. And this will necessarily overlap with #2. So I won’t treat #2 separately.

He uses Biblical words like redemption, sin, “exousia” etc., but imbues them with his own definitions, seemingly without regard for how Scripture itself uses them. So he can say in the preface that our sufferings are “redemptive.”

Redemption in the Bible always (in Hebrew and Greek) carries the idea of something (or someone) being “bought back.” Slaves are redeemed when they buy their freedom back. It is used repeatedly in the OT in reference to God redeeming Israel from its slavery in Egypt. We can redeem the time when we stop wasting it and use for Christ’s service (Eph. 5:16 – KJV ).

But of the 9 times it is used in the NT it is used most and specifically in terms of our salvation. In Gal. 3:13 – Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law. Gal. 4:5 – God sent His Son to redeem those who were under the law (Jews) so that they might receive adoption as sons. In Titus 2:14 – Christ was given to redeem us back from lawlessness. Heb. 9:15 – He redeems us from our transgressions of the Law. And 2 times in Rev. it refers to the Believer being redeemed out of the human race to be God’s possession.

So I do not know how he means it when he uses it. If it is in the generic sense of redeeming the time like in Eph. 5, good enough. But an explanation would have helped. If he means that we have some part in our salvation from sin – then we have a real problem. But he simply uses a very important, Bible specific word without reference to what he means, or how the Bible uses it.

So too with the word “salvation.” In Matt. 1:21, Jesus is named Jesus because He will “save His people from their sins.” The overarching use is in terms of being rescued from our alienation from God due to our sins, and the need to be rescued or “saved” from God’s wrath. Typical of the NT usage is Romans 5:9-11 “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

He nowhere references salvation in this way, when in fact it is central to how the NT refers to salvation. This is central to Gospel itself and why I find it so disturbing. When John the Baptizer comes on the scene in Matt. 3 – his issue is who told the Scribes and Pharisees to flee “from the wrath to come?” Rom. 1 tells us that in the Gospel, the wrath of God is revealed against all sin. Eph. 2 says that before we were born again, we were all by nature “children of wrath.” And in John 3 Jesus Himself says that “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Of its 9 uses in the book of Revelation, it is the wrath of God which is most often in view. And in 6:16 – people actually cry out to be delivered from “the wrath of the Lamb” which is Christ Himself.

These concepts which are so essential to an understanding of the Gospel are completely missing from Rolheiser’s approach. Men are nowhere called to repent of their sins and come to Christ for forgiveness, cleansing and the new birth. The Gospel is absent. He treats everyone as though they are already reconciled to God, which Scripture absolutely denies.

“Exousia” as vulnerability. His very use of the word shows he has familiarity with the underlying Greek text. The problem is, he completely ignores what the word means in any Greek dictionary you might like to use, and just invents his own definition to suit his point. We cannot use the Word of God this way without utterly corrupting it.

There is a reason this word is most often translated as “authority.” And it is the very same Greek word in the translation he used – NRSV. I’ve included below a representation of all the places in the Bible where exousia is translated. It is never, never used to convey vulnerability. Most often “authority” or “power”, and you can see the rest in the chart.

So as I said is true with many today in Evangelicalism as well – he uses select portions of Scripture – without reference to context, to buttress what he wants to say, rather than teaching what the Scripture actually teaches. It is very, very sad. And it is why we need to read our entire Bibles to see what the whole Scripture teaches on any subject. When we pluck just one mention and use it to interpret all other places where it is used, we completely misuse the Bible.

Sin: Pages 43-45: He cites a letter from woman who never sinned for 40 years. So he elaborates on all sorts of actions being wrong but not sinful. Once again, we need to ask – how does Scripture define sin? Because of his disregard for what the Bible calls sin, he can agree with the woman’s letter and then add: Page 44: “There’s more jealousy, hatred, anger, murder, adultery, slander, lying, and blasphemy at God in our world than there is sin.” In fact, these are the very things Scripture calls sin! So we read in Romans 1 the catalogue of sins God will judge: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth… Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves…For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Or consider Ephesians 5: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.”

These things are indeed “sins”, and God’s wrath will be poured out on those who do them and do not repent. So how he can make the statement above truly boggles my mind. It shows either serous confusion about what God says on the subject, or a deliberate denial of what the Bible teaches to make his point. This is serious.

In this regard, we need to recall John’s statement in 1 John 1 – “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” I have every sympathy with the gal in the letter. But our sympathies cannot e used to redefine what Scripture defines, and come to the light of our real situation.

3 – His understanding of the character of God and its implications.

This comes come out in a number of places, but we get our first hint when on Page 29 he states that capital punishment contrary to the Gospel. I have no ax to grind when it comes to the debate over whether or not we ought to use CP in our society. There is no doubt that it tragically, improperly implemented in our current system and its use desperately needs to be reformed.

That said, we do have to ask ourselves, who instituted capital punishment? And we find in Genesis 9 that it is none other than God Himself: “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” CP was built into the Mosaic Law as God gave it to Israel. And it is even reiterated in Romans 13:4 – Government does not bear the sword in vain – the instrument of death.

So if we take Rolheiser’s statement at face value, he has God instituting what is both contrary to the Gospel and to His own character. God contradicts Himself. This is a problem we can’t get around. But of course all of this grows out of the statement he makes on Page 35: “God is absolutely and utterly nonviolent.”

We then have to ask ourselves, how does this square with the report of Scripture throughout? What about Noah’s flood? The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? The conquest of Canaan? Nadab & Abihu? Uzzah? Korah’s rebellion? Etc. And even God’s final disposition of sinners? These are judicial acts by God, and incorporate divine violence in the carrying out of justice. Jesus Himself gives a stunning account of some of what is to be expected at His return in Matt. 24: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” These are not non-violent images.

It is true God condemns all unrighteous violence. But it is equally true that His judgments are often violent in His righteousness.

It is Rolheiser’s misconception of God in this absolute way, that leads him to see Timothy McVeigh as a Christ figure suffering as a scapegoat, instead of receiving the just consequence of his murderous acts. And then to go one and state on Page 35 that God is not “the great avenger of evil and sin.

In fact, Scripture affirms the exact opposite. Scripture says He IS the avenger of evil and sin. So we read in Hebrews 10: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Or again in Eph. 5 – “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”

Page 50 – “God did not want and script Jesus’ death as payment, in pain, for Adam’s sin and ours. In the Gospels, Jesus never speaks of His death as a payment for sins, but rather always as a gift of love.”

This is to deny all the types and shadows of the Old Testament about the need for a substitutionary atoning sacrifice for our sins. Shockingly, it is a complete repudiation of the Gospel.

First we have to understand that Jesus’ death for us was indeed the Father’s “script”. In fact, this truth made it into every account of NT preaching we have in the book of Acts. Acts 2 – “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Acts 4 – “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”

Acts 13 – “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.”

Or consider Jesus’ own words in John 12 – “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.”

Nor is this a NT nuance. That famous chapter Isa. 53 spells this out in detail: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

Page 54 – Jesus doesn’t pay our debt, but transforms it. This is simply never the teaching of Scripture. And, completely ignores passages like Isaiah 53 cited above. It denies the entirety of the types and shadows of the sacrificial system under the Old Covenant, and denies 1 Peter 2 – He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”

And then we have to consider too – Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 3:18; Rom. 3:25; Rom. 4:25; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:12; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor. 15 – “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”

I could go on to deal with how he characterizes taking up our Cross, which Jesus defines as denying our own will and desires when it is contrary to God’s; his statement on Page 85 – “In a manner of speaking, we are betrayed even by our God? Jesus was not betrayed on the Cross. Betrayal implies breaking trust. God was placing our sin upon Him and He was bearing the wrath we deserved, which is separation from God. But Jesus also knew the Father and in His dying moment said “into your hands I commit my spirit.” He was NOT betrayed. And neither are we. WE, have betrayed Him.

His reference on Page 86 – The account of the young man fleeing and then appearing at Jesus’ tomb is utter fabrication. John 20 tells us these were angels.

On Page 87 he asserts “Jesus died in silence” while the Bible records the 7 sayings of Jesus on the Cross. This is imagination to make a point.

On the bottom of Page 98 – He articulates as clear a statement of the law of Karma as one is likely to read. Completely unscriptural. No wonder he likes Gandhi so much. He functions like a practical Hindu. Stunning.

Or his contention on Page 102 – “No sin is unforgivable, when Jesus says in Matt. 12 – “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

4 – And then, he closes the book with Chapter 5 on The Resurrection. He writes this entire, last chapter to say (as he quotes Julian of Norwich on page 103) “all will be well…and every manner of being will be well.” “Everything, including our own lives, eventually will end sunny-side up.”

All this – without addressing Jesus’ teaching to the very opposite. John 5 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

To lull everyone who reads into a fiction that everything will just be all right in the end, when Jesus so starkly warns that there is a judgment to come and an eternal Hell to be avoided – is to me, unconscionable. It is to conform people in their sins. No call to repentance. No call to faith in Christ as their sin-bearer. No call to flee the wrath to come. This is horrific.

Sadly, there is more, but I do not want my response to be longer than the book itself. A tendency I have. But as a bottom line I simply have to say that little in the book is actually owing to the teaching of Scripture, but to Rolheiser’s concepts, which he then conscripted certain Biblical statements in service to. It is what theologians call eisegesis (reading something into the text) as opposed to exegesis (digging out what is in the text.) Bible teachers are called to be exegetes. Uncovering what is genuinely there. Tragically, this book does anything but. And if taken at face value, will lead every reader into believing everything will just be OK, whether they repent of their sin or not, or are reconciled to God through faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus on the Cross. And this, in a book about the Cross.

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