Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.
Summary: An exploration of why Christians claim the death and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in human history, because it is the “delivering verdict” of God against human systems to control sinful human flesh, hence an act with socio-political significance for all peoples.
Anselm posed the question, “Cur Deus Homo?” or “why the God Man?” Peter J. Leithart thinks the more significant question that must be asked is, “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century…be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”
Leithart’s big question leads to a sweeping exploration of pagan and secular culture, Levitical foundations, and Pauline teaching. This is not a book for the faint of heart or one narrowly focused on atonement theories, but rather one that attempts to explain how our understanding of the atonement makes sense of everything and addresses not only the individual but our social and political structures.
Leithart begins with exploring what he calls the “physics of the old creation.” We are creatures of flesh, originally good but bent in the fall. Every society subsequently creates “elemental” or stoicheic systems (cf. Galatians 4:1-10) recognizing the pollution of human flesh and creating systems of “do not taste, do not touch” rules that lead to striving for purity. Leithart does an imaginative tour by a Jew of various ancient civilizations describing how these work, whether focused around the fear of death, around phallic displays and fertility, or around violence, honor, and vengeance. These resulted in classes, political structures, and injustices.
God chose Israel for something different. Beginning with Abraham, the cutting of circumcision was an anti-flesh campaign that expanded with Torah and served as a teacher or pedagogue of how to approach God. Yet Torah was co-opted in using purity rules to reinforce ideas of racial superiority over Gentiles and divisions between elite and “sinner” Jews. It became yet another stoicheic system.
Leithart understands that it is the full life of Jesus enacting all that Torah intended, the unjust death in the flesh in which judgment is passed upon human flesh in Christ (Leithart here argues for a carefully defined version of penal substitution), and the bodily resurrection of Jesus by the Father in the Spirit, that together constitute atonement and justification. Leithart elaborates justification as God’s “delivering verdict” or “deliverdict” liberating not only from sin and the flesh, but the elemental, stoicheic principles of the world, whether those of other religious systems, Torah, or what Leithart sees as the post-stoicheic systems of secularism which are a kind of relapse from the Christian era’s understanding of a Spirit indwelt life. Those united with Christ by faith enter a new epoch, a new humanity breaking down the sociopolitical divisions of the old order, and live according to a new animating principle.
I’ve offered here only a bare bones summary of a breathtakingly rich argument. I believe he makes several important contributions to our understanding of the work of Christ. One is his discussion of stoicheic elements as a social theory elaborating the ways various societies attempt to deal with the flesh, and the sociopolitical consequences of these systems. While carefully arguing for penal substitution, a doctrine that has fallen out of favor, he contends for a broader understanding of atonement and justification that encompasses the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and centers justification in the objective “delivering verdict” of these events rather than our subjective experience. Along with N.T. Wright, he argues that we are justified by the faith of Jesus, in whom we trust, but he also draws out further what this new status means in terms of a new Spirit-empowered life in the flesh and a new social order contrary to stoicheic systems that has radical implications for Christian mission that crosses social barriers and breaks them down. His analysis of modernity in “Galatian Church, Galatian Age” serves as a rich complement to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.
Leithart’s book covers familiar territory but forces you out of familiar patterns of thinking. I’m still weighing how well “stoicheic systems” can serve as a kind of “social theory of everything.” I’m challenged by how often we separate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and how Leithart brings these together as a seamless whole. The idea of a “delivering verdict,” that performs what it declares and powerfully transfers us into a Spirit empowered community speaks of the power of the gospel to effect what it promises. This book stays on my shelves, worthy of further reflection and re-reading.