Monday, April 2, 2007

More on Atonement

The conservative blogs are having a field day with this report that the Very Rev Jeffrey John, who had to withdraw before taking up an appointment as bishop of Reading in the Church of England in 2003 after it emerged he was in a long-term gay relationship, is about to make a provocative radio commentary on BBC Radio 4 that will attack traditional beliefs on atonement:


In a BBC Radio 4 show, Mr John, who is now Dean of St Albans, urges a revision of the traditional explanation, known as "penal substitution".


Christian theology has taught that because humans have sinned, God sent Christ as a substitute to suffer and die in our place.


"In other words, Jesus took the rap and we got forgiven as long as we said we believed in him," says Mr John. "This is repulsive as well as nonsensical. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If a human behaved like this we'd say that they were a monster."


Mr John argues that too many Christians go through their lives failing to realise that God is about "love and truth", not "wrath and punishment". He offers an alternative interpretation, suggesting that Christ was crucified so he could "share in the worst of grief and suffering that life can throw at us".

Now it is hard say whether Father Johns' comments are really so out of bounds until we actually hear the address. Yet, the Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, has said, "He is denying the way in which we understand Christ's sacrifice. It is right to stress that he is a God of love but he is ignoring that this means he must also be angry at everything that distorts human life."

Yet, as I pointed out in a post last Friday, the penal substitution theory of atonement is only one theory of atonement, and as long as one does not reject Christ's atonement altogether, one can remain safely in the bounds of Christian doctrine.

I think one of the more insightful commentaries on Father Johns' remarks was by Father Dan, my favorite blogging orthodox Episcopal priest:

As you might imagine, I believe it was both a theological and a pastoral mistake for Jeffrey John to make these remarks. But I also need to acknowledge that I am not without a good degree of empathy for his position. The fact is that the penal-substitutionary view is only one theory of the atonement (how it is that we are saved by what Jesus did). It draws on an abundance of scriptural imagery to flesh it out and give it heft. Its primary classical exponent is St Anselm, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the Twelfth Century, but it was picked up by the Reformers and has been a mainstay of Evangelical theology, both Anglican and otherwise.

But there are other equally biblical and equally plausible theories of the atonement, and to the extent that this may be Dean John's point, then he indeed has a point. As C. S. Lewis wisely observes in his classic Mere Christianity, none of the possible theories can alone account for the mystery of the atonement, and none have ever been declared official dogma by the Church. In fact, they need one another, even though they cannot be neatly reconciled, and appear to contradict one another in certain ways.

As for the love of God versus the wrath of God--this is just one in a long series of polarities that comprise the truth of the gospel. (Just to name a few: God is one and God is three, Jesus is divine and Jesus is human, salvation requires faith [Paul] and salvation requires deeds [James], prayer is "art" and prayer is "craft," faith is individual ["I believe"] and faith is communal ["we believe"]). The object of the game is to maintain the tension in the line between the two poles, the two ends of the spectrum. The temptation is always to resolve the apparent contradiction in favor of one and at the other's expense. This is precisely how we fall into error, into--yes-- heresy.

The wrath of God is not an appealing concept, and one can make a case that it has been overblown at some times within the tradition of Christian preaching and catechesis. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean we can cast it aside. Quite the contrary; it is the difficult parts of the faith that demand our closest attention and deepest struggle. If the historical development of Christian thought shows us anything, it is that we do the truth no service by resolving apparent contradictions too hastily or too cleanly. Deep truth--meta-truth--emerges from a sustained struggle, earnest wrestling, with notions that appear to be irreconcilable.

Jeffrey John's mistake is not in calling us to a richer understanding of the cross of Christ than the penal-substitutionary atonement, viewed in one dimension. It is in yielding to the omnipresent temptation to relax the tension between the poles. When that happens, both ends collapse.

I don't know that I accept the notion of a wrathful God. While the wrathful nature of God appears throughout the Old Testament, I wonder whether this is a view of God reflected through the eyes of an agrarian and tribal people, rather than the reality of God's nature. I do, however, accept that God makes ethical demands on us, so perhaps Father Dan and I are in agreement after all.

In any event, as I suggested in my previous post, I think that Father Johns' critique of penal substitution is well taken, but can be answered by the thought that it is our human nature that required the sacrifice, not God's wrath. To repeat my conclusion: At the time of Christ's crucifixion, humankind could only imagine atonement through violent sacrifice. After all, the violent sacrifice of an animal was the means of atonement in both the Jewish and Pagan worlds in the First Century. The only way to break us out of this cycle of scapegoating and sacrifice was for God to make the ultimate sacrifice of his Son. And God knew that the only way to seize our attention and have us commit to the new way of living by love described by both Jesus and Paul was by the Cross--the violent sacrifice of the innocent and divine Son of God.

In other words, the loving God could by his grace alone have reconciled us with no atonement and no sacrifice, but we could only have hope of accepting this grace if God took the additional and astounding step of putting his Son on the Cross. God did not demand such a sacrifice. We did. And I can think of no more loving act.

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