Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
September 18th, 2014 by Joel Watts

Atonement: Jesus + Suicide = a (sorta) response to @MAGuyton

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Oh yes I will make you come down here! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Morgan has asked for some feedback on this post:

Do you deserve to be crucified for your sin?.

I missed it, but I guess Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown had a debate on Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). As Morgan has said, I’m not going to throw the concept of a substitutionary atonement out of the window as there is clearly a notion of Jesus dying in the place of others. We find this in Scripture and in Church Tradition. And Morgan is correct, I believe, that Scripture does not contain the necessary elements of PSA, that of a God who has honor and requires a satisfaction of that honor code.

PSA has been part of (Western) Christian Tradition since the 11th century and roundly developed during the early days of the Protestant Reformation. It is not historic in the sense that it is found in Scripture nor in the earliest Christian Tradition. Indeed, during its genesis, it faced stiff competition from Peter Abelard’s moral exemplary theory. Note, the 11th century was also the time of the Great Schism. Thankfully the East never enjoyed the benefits of the wisdom of Anselm or Calvin on PSA. Rather, the East held to and continues to hold to Christus Victor (CV). This is a linear progression from the ransom theory of early writers and, of course, of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation.

However, we cannot do away with the sacrificial death of Christ nor the role sin played in causing the death. Michael Bird has combined the two, PSA and CV, to produce CV as the overarching goal but accomplished by something akin to PSA. In general, I am okay with that. I think there is room in Scripture and in Tradition to allow for a few different atonement theories (as well as a few different understandings of atonement). The early Church simply did not develop a completely systematic theology of atonement but spent the better part of its time saving children and understanding the divinity of Christ.

I have other issues with PSA, none of which require me to place God into human terms such as honor, evil, and good. If God chose to kill his son because of our sins, then we can hardly lay at God’s feet the crime of child abuse. My rejection of PSA is not based on notions of human morality but on the lack of historical evidence for it. PSA develops during a time of the rise of individualism as well as a sharp rise in the way the West viewed the Jews. I might would say it was a wave of intellectual Marcionism. Rather than divorcing the New Testament from the Old, Anselm and others divorced the OT from its Jewishness. I cannot say Anselm did this on purpose, as he had not yet heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the rise of an area of study known as Second Temple Judaism.

I digress.

Because of the lack of Jewishness in designing this new doctrine, atonement turned from the corporate to the individual. Had the Church and the Synagogue continued to work closely with one another as it had in the first few centuries of Christianity, we may never have seen such a uniquely pre-modern atonement theory develop. But, we have and we have lost a lot in regards to a corporate view of individual sin because of this. I cautiously agree with Morgan, when he writes,

The way that sin actually works doesn’t respect our individualist boundaries of blame and responsibility anyhow. We are collectively responsible as humanity for the harm that our community has made possible, even if individuals were the direct agents behind it.

I think immediately of Achan and others throughout Scripture who individually sinned and helped to lead the corporate body astray and into punishment. This is not to say individual sins do not matter, or that because a corporate body is saved, then even the worst part is cleansed; however, PSA is about the individual whereas CV focuses on the corporate notion of covenant and election. It is not a personal relationship between God through Christ and an individual, but God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. God did not through Christ make a personal covenant with each and every one of us individually based on our reaction to him, but with a people as a whole. Once we lost this sense of corporate election, we quickly devolve into individual election. Further, I believe PSA is harmful to the notion of being grafted in (Romans 9-11) as well as Scriptural points about sin as an action against the covenant.

PSA has transformed our notion of sin into individualist terms. Further, the Cross is not necessarily about blame and justice. Thus, I somewhat disagree with Morgan when he writes,

The cross happened because we will never be able to assign blame for sin with perfect accuracy and justice, so God says give all that blame to me and accept my forgiveness, recognizing your culpability and my grace…I do believe and am grateful that God came up with a way to take the blame for all the awful things we human beings have done to each other so that we can spend eternity together in authentic reconciliation and peace.

Sin is not about what we do to each other but what we have done against the covenant (although that actually includes what we do against each other (Matthew 25)). The covenant is with God and if we break it it is not against another, but against God. Thus, reconciliation is not about humans, but between God and his creation.

So, what is my view on the atonement? As I have disclosed before, I believe Jesus participated in a style of self-sacrifice commonly called devotio ducis. Why did he do it? This type was specific to those who were losing a battle and who had to offer something to deities who had abandoned them. This includes a loss, a sense of abandonment, and the notion of free will. In Stoic and developing Jewish thought, suicide was forbidden because it allowed the human to take the reigns from the deities. We are not our own, both made clear, but God’s! Thus, to do it in such a way made something more than a statement. If Jesus suggested it or rather if Paul and early /a/Christians are using this as an image (I think the earliest) then they are telling us a few things:

  • Jesus felt God had abandoned Israel (not only is this present in the Gospels, but so too in other Second Temple literature).
  • Jesus chose to die as a self-sacrifice (enough passive language in Paul to allow for this). He offered himself up via a death-by-cop motif (or death by legionnaire?). What’s the difference between martyrdom, suicide, and self-sacrifice? The motivation. All three end the same way.
  • By offering himself up as a sacrifice, he clearly saw himself as someone different. If he followed the views of Cato, it is possible he saw himself as divine. His death is Christological and should be understood as such.
  • His death is not so much an atonement for sins (nuanced – read Psalms of Solomon) as a reigniter of the covenant and the call to God to keep his promises (such as opening the covenant to the Gentiles). By his death, Jesus is attempting to force God to act (react?) and renew his covenant. If anything, the charge is not against the people of the covenant, but against God.
  • The self-sacrifice is meant to bring peace (not so much victory) between God and the world. The peace is the reconciliation between God and the covenant. This is not about hedonism or legalism, but about the relationship (no, Jesus is not your boyfriend) between God and his Creation. When Israel sinned, God abandoned her. And likewise, he abandoned the world. Jesus, seeing this, decided to act. He killed himself.

This is, by the way, the topic of my dissertation. I use sources from 1 Clement, Tertullian and other early Christians to support this view as well as the book of Galatians. Further, I use Josephus, Plutarch, and others. I maintain that this is an image, and would like to maintain that it is the earliest image, of the death of Christ. I equally maintain that it is not new but was known before. It just was not the dominant image. And I’m okay with that.

What does this do? I do not believe Christ “died for me” but rather, Christ died as the obedient Son God never had (i.e., Israel) which opened the door to the Gentiles. The sins of the people caused God to abandon Israel and thus deny to the Gentiles the fullness of reconciliation. It is only by the death of Jesus (who saw himself as divine) that the covenant was renewed. It is only through the death of the divine Jesus we are able to participate in the covenant with God. He became the curse so that we might become free. Jesus was the perfect Israel so that All Israel might be saved.

While I think it is time the Western Church shook off the stranglehold of PSA, we have to be watchful not to forget the sacrifice of Jesus and its relationship with sin. We need to be mindful of the several images of the atonement in the New Testament and how the early Church developed them — as well as the various early atonement models existing side by side.

There is a Facebook discussion going on as well. Feel free to join in there if you so choose.

Please note this is for discussion and my views may change somewhat.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

4 Responses to “Atonement: Jesus + Suicide = a (sorta) response to @MAGuyton”
  1. Hi Joel,

    I just happen to be studying the various views of atonement right now. I too have problems with the PSA view. I’m curious how OT, inter-Testamental, and 2nd Temple views would help enlighten things. However, it’s difficult not to see your views of Jesus trying to force God’s hand as being more psychological projection than anything you are finding in early sources.

    • uh… well, uh thanks Bilbo, I guess. If anything, PSA is psychological. But, you have a point. Often times, these atonement models, and sometimes even theology as a whole, are projections. I’ve tried to test those waters, to make sure such things are not the case. I don’t feel as if they are. I am confident that God acts – and as a panentheist, I believe God is always actings.

      As far as other literature, look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalms of Solomon, and Josephus’s account. They speak of God abandoning Israel. Josephus even goes so far as to suggest Masada is an action designed to get God to act. But, he may be projecting (I’m not being snarky either ;))

  2. joezias says

    I and many others long have had problems with the ‘He died for us’ motif, rather if should be read, ‘because of us’ He died….

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