Saturday, May 23, 2009

Atonement -- Theories in Conflict

If you read through the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul, but the others as well, you will come across the word atonement. We can run from it, eliminate it from our lectionary readings, redefine it, etc., but it's still there. I've raised the issue of penal substitutionary atonement in the context of the issue of torture, wondering if the broad acceptance of that theory of atonement has influenced the overwhelming numbers of church going Americans (not just evangelicals) to embrace torture in the defense of national security. By doing this, I do not want to be seen as suggesting that such a connection is inevitable. I know many people who embrace penal substitutionary atonement who would never condone torture, nor would they see what happens on the cross constituting torture. Instead, I believe that they would take their cue from Anselm's "satisfaction" theory. We are a sinful people, and justice requires that a penalty be paid. We should pay it, but we're incapable of doing so, and thus Jesus has stepped forward to take our penalty.

One of the reasons why substitution has so many adherents is that in terms of simplicity, there are few options as simple as this one. It's easily explained, even if its not always easy to accept. The principle is simple -- we owe a debt we cannot pay, and Jesus, being both divine and human, though owing nothing, is able to pay our debt. Anselm's doctrine, put forward about 1000 years ago, expressed in his classic treatise "Why the God-Man?" says that we have dishonored God, and that God's honor needs to be restored. Only a human being owes this honor, but no human being is capable. Thus, the God-Man.

Within a century of this, Abelard, stepped forward, complained about its unjustness, and offered an alternative. Jesus, he said, died this way, in order to show us first God's deep love and also to show us a different way of living, one that is sacrificial. Where as Anselm's theory proposed a way to change God's attitude toward us, Abelard's focused on changing our attitudes toward God and humanity. The only problem is that this moral influence theory seems just as punitive (why does Jesus have to die in such a way to show us God's love, and it also seems to suggest that to love God requires suffering on our part), and its not especially effective. 2000 years later, we're just as abusive and sinful as ever. So what God did this do for us?

There are other solutions, some ancient and some new. One of the preferred options goes well back into history, but had renewed emphasis after its "rediscovery" by Gustav Aulen. In this theory, called Christus Victor, Jesus essentially tricked Satan and achieved victory because Satan couldn't hold on to Jesus, thus freeing us. As William Placher points out in an important essay in this most recent issue of the Christian Century, (this essay is not yet posted on line -- title is "How does Jesus save?" -- Christian Century, June 2, 2009, pp. 23ff). Anselm was aware of this theory and didn't find the cunning God any more useful than the one needing honor restored. Another theory that has gotten a lot of play recently was developed by Rene Girard, and it makes use of the scapegoat idea. But again, despite its seeming usefulness, it doesn't seem to offer a real way forward.

Placher, recently deceased, suggests we take a look at another theory, one that has great ancestry to it. It's one that I personally have found useful, even if I've not been able to fully work it out, and that is Irenaeus' doctrine of recapitulation. This doctrine is even more ancient that Christus Victor. It reflects a view that John Calvin himself suggested, that the entirety of Christ's life, his obedience to God in all things, has saved us. Placher doesn't believe has finally resolved the seemingly unresolvable question, but I think he's on to something important.

In this theory, which JND Kelley has worked on in some detail, the principle is reflective of Paul's statement that Christ is the second Adam, and that through his love for us, he "became what we are, so that we can become what he is."

There is much to this discussion, one that warrants a close reading of Placher's posthumous essay. But I think it warrants our consideration because the Scriptures require it of us, if we're to take them seriously, and our relationship with God with one another also requires it of us.

I don't find either moral influence nor penal substitution effective or acceptable explanations. Both are medieval in origin, and have major moral flaws in them. Christus Victor has an ancient pedigree, but it too falls short, as does the scapegoat theory, for while it taps into biblical themes, we've yet to come to a point where we've abandoned scapegoating the innocent.

So, the discussion continues. But we must continually ask ourselves, how does my doctrine influence my actions?

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

Am I crazy.. or did you take down a post about graduation? Both asked excellent questions and this post on atonement is what I fully enjoy. Listening to people wrestle with meaty theological discussions, but approaching it from different backgrounds. (liberal, conservative, etc)

I have always been an atonement guy. This comes from God telling Moses that he can't see his face, but only the passing glory. Or Isiah request a hot coal b/c he has unclean lips. The idea is that God is so perfect, so pure, and our sins are so revolting to his nature, but in his love he gave his son for us to die so we can have communion.

This will may cause a blow back, but I often wonder if we don't study God's wrath enough. Today we seem to focus on getting our best life now from God vs a thankfulness from what he has saved us from. When we say Jesus saves.. the real question might be.. from what? I am by no means suggesting going back to the fire and brimstone days.. but a sober look at God's wrath throughout the Bible.

All that said.. the atonement crowd tends to hold on too tight to the law. There is tremendous focus on the law and justice, perhaps to a fault. (thus the ok with torture as part of justice being paid for violation of law) If this were a conservative blog, I would harp on the fact that often God's grace is not fully understood when looking at the atonement.

Chuck

Anonymous said...

I see how it's important from reading the bible and that it thus might be something we have to accept in faith as christians, but it's a major mystery for sure.

It's hard to fathom. To me the issue arises that there may be holiness and cleansing in suffering (my Catholic roots?). I worry that this helps give rise
to cruelty in the church itself, such that we can never deny.

It wasn't too subtle in Catholic school. They were always pleased to here we were in pain or were uncomfortable- "offer it up to the lord" they would always say.

I always thought most nuns had an odd idea about the guy because of things like that.

David Mc

John said...

Your post, returning to the basic issue of atonement, compels me to ask a series of questions:

1. Who is Jesus, what do we make of his status as divine?

(Was Jesus divine, human, human/divine? was Jesus part of Trinity? was he adopted by God or did he pre-exist creation? Was he a mere prophet?)

2. Why did Jesus come among us, (what was his mission) and was his human incarnation optional or was it necessary to our survival as a species, or to the survival of our souls to eternity? and/or to our reconciliation with our creator?

3. How did Jesus accomplish his mission (if he succeeded)? By substitutionary atonement, being a scapegoat, by defeating death/sin in some fashion, etc?

(This is the core question to this blog post.)

4. Do these questions have a single answer, intelligible to a person of average intelligence?

(Is there but one answer? Is the answer even knowable or are we just
tilting at windmills to think we can know anything significant about the transcendent God?)

5. Is the understanding of these questions and their answers a significant component in our relationship with our creator?

(What if we are not of sufficient intelligence to grasp the issues involved, or if we are not exposed to right thinking? What if we are not spiritually oriented, and have no passion for investigating and mastering complexities of our relationship with God? Do we sin by our inability or by our lack of interest?)

I am just asking...

John

John said...

Chuck,

Wrath is a human emotion which we tend to impose on God by anthropomorphism.

Whatever God feels it transcends human understanding and human vocabulary. Wrath may be the best word available to the writers of Scripture to described what they discerned, but it could never accurately capture the essence of what is was meant to communicate.

Whatever God feels, it is not the human emotion of anger - if for no other reason than because Jesus says that if "you are angry with a brother you will be liable to judgment...[instead] be perfect therefore as your heavenly father is perfect!"

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

In response to your questions, I guess I'll have to consider them in a variety of ways/posts. But while I do think it matters what we believe, because I believe that what we believe influences how we act, I'm under no illusion that everyone will be able to grasp the complexities of the issues at hand. The fact that we're discussing the purpose of Jesus' visit to this planet after 2000 years suggests that there are no easy answers. So, we continue the discussion and exploration.

As for the wrath of God, it is one of those expressions that's difficult to comprehend. Perhaps that's why Anselm couched the discussion in terms of honor. We have offended God's honor because of our rejection of God's ways. But that raises questions about God's character.

Since substitution and moral influence are generally the two most commonly taught theories, we start with them. But neither, in my mind, works. The first raises questions about God's character and the second raises other questions about God's character and really begs the question as to its efficacy.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Oh, as for Jesus' divinity, Irenaeus' theory requires at least some notion of divinity -- one that goes beyond adoptionism.

William Booth said...

"And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." Matthew 15:14

Anonymous said...

John,

In my opinion, the devil really is in the details. The village idiot can be saved if he is pure of heart. Those "smart enough" to deceive and sin are the ones intellectually challenged to save themselves, especially if Jesus' true nature was shown to them. This is more of a hunch though.

I love your post though.

What if the whole world "adopted" Jesus? What proud parents we'd be!

David Mc

Anonymous said...

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Oscar Wilde

Please be a little more specific Billy.

David Mc

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I was just reading some of Oscar's other quotes. He had some good one. I love this..

"Man can believe the impossible, but can never believe the improbable”
Oscar Wilde

This is ok too..

“The old believe everything; the middle aged suspect everything: the young know everything.”
Oscar Wilde

David Mc

Nick said...

You said: "If you read through the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul, but the others as well, you will come across the word atonement."

Nick: I think you should be very careful here, as surprising as this may sound, your comment is false. The term "atonement" hardly ever appears in the New Testament, and some argue it doesn't appear at all!
The only place Paul uses the term is in Rom 3:25, but since it's the same term as Hebrews 9:5 for "mercy seat," some say Rm 3:25 isn't even a clear case.


You said: "Instead, I believe that they would take their cue from Anselm's "satisfaction" theory. We are a sinful people, and justice requires that a penalty be paid. We should pay it, but we're incapable of doing so, and thus Jesus has stepped forward to take our penalty."

Nick: Just for clarity sake, St Anselm did NOT advocate Penal Substitution. Satisfaction is NOT the same as Penal Substitution. A solid example of the concept of satisfaction (where God's wrath is turned away and atonement made) is Phinehas in Num 25:1-13, which didn't require Penal Substitution. (In case anyone is wondering, I believe P-Sub is flatly unbiblical, and I say this based on careful reading of the Bible...NOT presuppositions that have been repeated over and over, which is sadly what most people do.)

The term the NT frequently DOES use is "ransom" ("redeem", "redemption", etc"). The very concept of ransom contradicts P-Sub, because a ransom is a "buy back" price, not a transfer of punishment. St Anselm would see this as satisfaction, that is making reparations.

I recently finished a Penal Substitution debate against a Calvinist and have it posted on my webpage, if anyone is interested.

Steve said...

As for my view of why Jesus had to die, nothing I've seen since I first saw this bumper sticker has improved upon it.

"Custer died for our sins."

John said...

Nick,

I have to agree with your negative constructive essay that there are devastating arguments against the notion of penal substitution, especially the point that salvation can be lost (Mt 18), and the fact that there will come a day of judgment, as well as the point from Paul that the builder will be saved, as through fire (1 Cor 3:9-16) [I struggle with the last text, but my perception is that it points to the notion that God wills the salvation of all, but that we will personally answer for the evil we have done].

I am still reviewing the whole debate and will respond with more later.

John

John said...

On question (1) I tend to focus on John 1, as the face of God in this world, come to dwell among us; on Matthew 28, I will be with you always; and on Mark 8:29, who do you say that I am.

Jesus is in some mysterious fashion coexistent with the Creator, with God the father, if you will. I believe his presence on earth was intended in the first instance to provide a humanly recognizable glimpse of the divine and a corrective to the legalism which God found unacceptable, being a God of compassion and not merely formal justice.

Moreover, I think the the question, "who do you say that I am?" is an invitation to each of us to enter into and participate in a relationship with Jesus, a relationship over which we have some control, a relationship which is intended to more than one sided - not between equals, but between participants each with their own dignity of person. Imagine the character, the power and strength, sense of selfhood of a Creator-God who values the creation so much that the creation is invested with such status in the relationship with its Creator!

John

Anonymous said...

"Custer died for our sins."

I assume you mean the way we treated the American Indians Steve.
Will we ever be forgiven? I caught some of a PBS special that did a nice job of chronicling the history of the original Americans a couple weeks ago. It explained some of their religion and prayers, which was very inspiring.

What about the one I saw last week on a car that had two big heads sticking out..

"Dog is my copilot". I’m not sure If the driver was serious, or if it was like a “fish with feet”.

David Mc

Anonymous said...

John, aren't we all. Didn't/ won't each of us throughout all time??

"Jesus is in some mysterious fashion coexistent with the Creator, with God the father, if you will"

David Mc

The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.

Oscar Wilde

Religion is like a blind man looking in a black room for a black cat that isn't there, and finding it.

Oscar Wilde

Anonymous said...

as for Custer-

A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.

Oscar Wilde

David Mc

Anonymous said...

Can you build out how Matthew 18 shows a loss of salvation? These verses definitely talk of church discipline.. but not sure the salvation link? It also speaks of the need for "punishment" for sin. "It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell" Its also interesting that chapter contains a verse on torture.. which has been a recurring theme: "In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed"

Chuck

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm on an Oscar bender Chuck. It will pass. By the way, I'm not sure if I know you in real life, but thanks for posting so much...

Vile deeds like poison weeds bloom well in prison air, it is only what is good in man, that wastes and withers there.

I think that God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.

And, I really do hope this is true of Cheney, but suspect not..

Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.

David Mc

Anonymous said...

I think the main point of Matthew 18 is not to give a true beliver too much of a hard time. Which is why I'm so kind to Chuck. Otherwise I shall need to break off all my fingers and toes and cut off my nose, right (so I can't type)?

David Mc

John said...

Chuck,

In Mt 18 the master forgives his servant an enormous debt. Instead of taking his cue from his master, the servant then goes out and sends his fellow slaves to debtors prison when he cold not immediately repay a relatively minor debt. When the master got wind of this failure to "pass it on" he has the forgiven servant dragged back before, retracts the forgiveness and condemns him to torture until the debt is fully paid. Jesus concludes by saying: "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

I have always read this as saying that the forgiveness we receive from God compels us to forgive each other; and our failure to do so is perhaps the worst sin we could be guilty of, as no other sin Jesus discusses carries a threat of similar degree of punishment.

I read the withdrawal of forgiveness in Mt 18 as equal to the withdrawal of salvation because it seems illogical that you can be saved and yet remain unforgiven.

John

Anonymous said...

John,

Did you expect me to read the whole thing?

Also along the way to the end, which you describe, we're told to forgive 7 x 7 = 490 times (I'm nearly there with one brother of mine) and that "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them". I always wonereded why s/he didn't include one person? Anyway, you're right. A very good parable at the end. Several lessons.

David Mc

Anonymous said...

I love this post.. its been great conversation. David, please don't misunderstand my use of the verse. It was only to point to the seriousness of sin in the Lord's eyes vs any kind of self mutilation request. David I know you have a sharp wit and please understand my goal is never to take personal jabs.. only to spark good/thoughtful conversation.

John, interesting prospective that I haven't researched or walked through that idea. I think the question I would normally ask on that parable was if the person was saved originally? Is this like hearing the word and rejecting it? Many hear that there sins are forgiven but fail to worship or lead the life. Again.. I am guessing, so these statement are ripe to be ripped to shreds. Its an interesting parable to dig deeper into.

Chuck

Nick said...

John,

I'm glad to see you looked into my PSub debate, I admit it is 'long' but it is important information and I'm glad to see some people with enough drive to at least read the opening Essay. I'd be glad to see what else you have to say, either here or by emailing me.

And Mat 18:23-35 is one of the most powerful texts showing salvation can be lost, and it is amazing to see the amount of "gymnastics" people go through to not make it say that.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry Chuck, I never meant to give the impression I felt a prick. No pun intended. I always enjoy the conversation too.

David Mc

Anonymous said...

And if I'm ever over the line, I hope I'm told. If I don't apologize first.

Have a great summer.

David Mc

Anonymous said...

I’m reminded of something off the original topic.
Humor seems so important to us. Why isn’t there more (any?) humor in the Bible? What is the history of humor? Am I missing it? Is Monty Python’s Life of Brian okay to laugh at?

If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.
Oscar Wilde

G’nite- David Mc

John said...

Chuck,

You said: "I think the question I would normally ask on that parable was if the person was saved originally?"

My response is that the Master said the servant was forgiven - that's it. The act of forgiveness, the absolution, comes complete from the master and nothing is required of the servant to receive it except the plea for mercy.

It was not granted on a probationary basis - it was granted by the master without reservation. The master did not make a mistake in granting the servant forgiveness.

But gratitude is always required, and here genuine gratitude included the notion of "paying forward" the forgiveness he received.

We are called to "be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;" Luke 6:36-37.

John

Ron Henzel said...

I've posted my thoughts on the atonement in an article located at http://midwestoutreach.org/blogs/the-lamb-that-was-slain.

Anonymous said...

"It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom 2:13
Jesus limits the understanding of what he has perfected by his crucifixion to only a few finding it. Secondly 1 Cor. 2:6-8 states that if the actual reason for Jesus' crucifixion would have been able to be determined before his crucifixion he would not have been crucified. The fact you are missing is that by Jesus' crucifixion, it being the sin of murder caused by bloodshed, a change has been made to the law by adding a word. See Rom. 5:20 & Heb. 7:12. Therefore Jesus' crucifixion can only be a benefit to any individual by the faith of accounting directly to God as he demands in regard to bloodshed by the addition of a law.
"And for Your life blood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man too I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man."
Theodore A. Jones

John said...

I feel really dense. I have no idea what Mr. Jones was saying.

John