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4 Huge Theological Challenges (and How the Exodus Story Helps)

Editors’ note: 

Andrew Wilson and Alastair Roberts recently published Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture (Crossway, 2018).

Every generation faces specific theological challenges. If asked for ours, I would highlight at least four:

  1. Scripture and the character of God: how we hold together the pictures of God presented in the Old and New Testaments on matters like inclusion, law, and divinely sanctioned violence.
  2. Church: our apparently rootless, historically unmoored sense of identity, with all its implications for doctrine, liturgy, ecclesiology, and even politics, and what we can do about it.
  3. Atonement: how we should understand the different images, or models, of what happened at the cross, and how they all fit together.
  4. Engagement with contemporary culture: how to be orthodox on biblical ethics on the one hand (for instance on issues of life, and sexuality), while increasing in our advocacy and support for the oppressed and marginalized on the other (those who face injustice on grounds of sex, poverty, race, abuses of power, disability, discrimination, or something else).

These challenges, in a sense, are the bad news.

The good news is that reflecting on the exodus story, and particularly its echoes throughout the Bible, can help. Some of these echoes are clear as a bell (“for Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed”), and some are much fainter (chariots and water in the Elijah story). But they all increase our insight into, and enjoyment of, the redemptive shape of the biblical story.

And this deeper appreciation helps with all four of the theological challenges I just mentioned. Here’s how.

1. Scripture and the Character of God

The more we see the connections between the testaments, the less likely we are to succumb to the idea that the God of the Old Testament is morally inferior to the God revealed in Jesus [read Greg Boyd’s Misunderstandings of the ‘Warrior God’]. Few people will explicitly state it this way, but many are eager to put as much distance as possible between, say, the conquest of Canaan and the person of Jesus, as if the latter could never have approved of, let alone commanded, the former.

Others have gone further and argued that God simply never kills anybody for any reason, so every instance of violence in the Bible that implicates God should be seen as (a) incompatible with Jesus, and therefore (b) invented by ancient Israel. Seeing the extent to which the exodus story, plagues and Passover included, is echoed throughout Scripture—not least in the ministry and teaching of Jesus!—exposes the fragile foundations of all kinds of neo-Marcionism.

2. Church

In our rootless and disoriented world, in which novelty and self-expression are prized above wisdom and experience, there is no better way of finding our moorings than reading the Old Testament (in particular) as if it were, as Paul puts it, “written for our sake” (1 Cor. 9:10; see also Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11).

We get to view the Scriptures, and the exodus in particular, as not just their story, but as ours. “Our fathers were all under the cloud,” Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:1). They all passed through the sea. They all ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. And these things happened as examples for us, their great-great-etc.-grandchildren (vv. 1–6).

We’re to read about the exodus like we might read about the abolition of slavery, or the D-Day landings: as a defining history that explains who we are.

We should read about the exodus like we might read about the abolition of slavery, or the D-Day landings: as a defining history that explains who we are. We’re to hear its resonances throughout Scripture and recognize patterns that recur over and over, drawing encouragement from them for life today.

The exodus is our family story, and that both grounds us in history, and also gives us hope—as became clear in the civil-rights movement, for instance—that the God who liberated the captives then will continue to do so now.

3. Atonement

For a variety of reasons, different sections of the church today have become exclusively aligned with particular images, models, or pictures of the atonement, leading to a shrinking of the biblical gospel, as well as a fair bit of disunity and suspicion. (Some say “I am of Christus Victor,” some say “I am of reconciliation,” some say “I am of penal substitution,” and others say, “I am of Christ.”) Reactions have bred counter-reactions, and the center of our faith has, somewhat tragically, become a source of contention.

The exodus story, however, because it is so long and recurs so often, provides a wonderful framework for thinking about how all the different atonement imagery fits together. It’s a story of redemption from slavery, involving blood sacrifice, a substitute, liberation, reconciliation with God, a great victory, vindication through faith, union with God, adoption, priesthood, Passover, baptism, kingdom, and more—all of which, of course, also take place through the cross.

As such, the exodus story helps us grasp how these many descriptions of what Christ has done for us can all be true, without needing to play them off against each other.

4. Engagement with Contemporary Culture

Our culture is confused about the nature of true freedom, and this helps explain why so many imagine the pursuit of racial justice and the pursuit of biblical sexuality to stand in tension. One seems progressive, the other conservative. When framed by the exodus story, however, these categories disintegrate. Our redemption story is one in which “freedom from” is inextricably bound up with “freedom to.”

There is little point in being free from serving Pharaoh if we aren’t also free to serve Yahweh

God’s people are exodus people, so we know both the pain of oppression on ethnic grounds in Egypt, and also the dangers of compromise, idolatry, and immorality in the wilderness. We also know that there is little point in being free from serving Pharaoh if we aren’t also free to serve Yahweh. So we aren’t defined by the categories of 1789 or 1968, progressive and conservative, left and right. We pursue true freedom—whether from Egypt or the golden calf, oppression or immorality—knowing that if the Son sets us free, we will be free indeed (John 8:36).

We reap all sorts of benefits when we see the unity of Scripture, particularly when it comes to the exodus. It can help people make more sense of Scripture, more sense of the gospel, and more sense of the Christian life. And in everyday ways, it can help fuel our prayers, worship, and joy in the redeeming God of the exodus.

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