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.

Review, @ivpacademic’s “Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain”

Richard Rice has written a marvelous little book on the problem of suffering, or rather, the mystery of suffering. He has written it in gentle, direct language, without the need of an interpreter. He has done so through parables, stories, and letting authors speak for themselves. Rice provides, in this short little book, a multitude of views on theodicy, their respective high and low points, and a way forward respective of these wide ranging views and Christian tradition. Indeed, I can think of no better introduction to the philosophical problem of suffering as grasped in the Christian Tradition and how to form our own theology than this book.

Rice divides the book into 9 chapters, with 7 chapters to explain the various theodicies and 1 to explain why we need to examine this. The final chapter is his personal view. He knows full well, and uses noted apologist Alvin Plantinga as his support, that the one challenge atheists have best over theists is the problem of evil. He begins in chapter 2 with the easiest — the easiest to grasp at the very least. As he does with all other theodicies, Rice gives an overview, usually accompanied by a personal anecdote. Our author then gives the philosophical backdrop as to how these viewpoints came to take shape. Following this, he gives questions about the theodicy in view. In chapter 2, he examines the perfect plan wherein the holder sees God’s perfect will behind every action, good or bad. He raises the right questions, as he does in each and every viewpoint. He is not biased towards any one over the other.

There are only a few issues I have with this book. One, he relates what I would consider personal stories falling under the restricted structures of teacher-student, or otherwise, considerations. He may have reached out to those students, but this was not related to us. Perhaps it is not a problem with many, but I bristled at it, recalling some of the private conversations I had with teachers. Further, I would liked to have seen a stronger approach to the actual problem of the philosophy of evil. Why do we need to define evil and then use it as a litmus test for God? Overall, given the limitations of the nature of the book, these issues are perhaps more personal and should be taken into consideration if you are exactly as I am. Finally, in examining the non-theist view of theodicy, he takes an apologetic track. This was not as oft-putting as when others did it, but I’m not completely satisfied with the answers he gave.

I’ve chosen to include the best of this book last, forgoing my usual book review structure. In the last chapter of the book, Rice gives us a practical way forward. He admits that the previous views, even the view of the non-believer (he calls this “protest theodicy” in chapter 8), all hold something for him, but do not answer the question completely. He lays out four tenets of how he maintains the separation between God and evil (the most basic definition of theodicy). Without giving them away, they reside on the things Christians believe and hope for, falling into the realms of the doctrines of creation and salvation. It is in Rice’s practical theodicy we find a real path forward, consistent with the Christian tradition of mystery and confession over theories and facts. While you and I will have our own views of God and suffering, Rice’s understanding should be one we can give an ear to and learn from.

In all, this book does not answer the question of suffering — why good things happen to bad people; rather, it admits that, admits we do not know, and calls us to live in that place where a great deal of Christianity remains…the great mystery of Godliness.

some reflections on theodicy

All About Evil

All About Evil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I leaned towards the soul making theodicy as explained by John Hick, but I would go further than that. I am still toying with it, but I am leaning to calling something like entropic theodicy. Here are the basic principles:

  • “Evil,” “good” and “love” (along with other concepts) presuppose a moral order. Even “suffering” and “well-being” are concepts presupposing a pre-existing order. If God pre-exists order and is outside of all systems, then likewise he is outside the moral order. Therefore, such human concepts cannot easily apply to God.
  • God and the Cosmos are not separate (panentheism) albeit the cosmos is physical whereas God is not.
  • God and evil are not separate (Isaiah 45.7).
  • Evil is cosmological. (It exists in all corners of Creation).
  • Evil is entropic (hot water (unstable) growing colder (stable) due to entropy). Thus, evil leads to good, even if eventually. Thus, evil is defined as a cosmological state of instability whereas good is a cosmological state of stability. As with other entropic systems, there has to exist a separation and a difference. This allows for the transformation (theosis).
  • There are natural laws established by God; science has shown that in places these laws are not always strictly enforced; therefore, God is not completely bound by natural laws. Therefore, if God decides to intervene, this is to further the course of evil which will lead to good.
  • We can cooperate with God in the course of evil which leads to the eventual transformation.

Alright, there you go. It is still raw, but thoughts?

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Book Notes, @ivpacademic’s “The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas”

Periodically, Christians will awaken to the fact we no longer live in a pure, unadulterated Christendom. Since 1776, the West has been rocked by the notion that pluralism can happen and if it does happen, previously secure groups will begin to lose adherents. Such is the fate of the Christian Church in the West. In Europe and in the United States, we have seen a marked decrease in church attendance and identification as Christians. We have also seen Christianity challenged by various movements. There are reactions, not necessarily good ones either. There is a general consensus, however, that Christians need to understand the times in which we live (the end of a Christian-dominated West) and how this will shape our message. Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak attempt to deliver a plan by using Paul’s time and context to show how it shaped his preaching so that we may learn how to use the pluralism today to shape ours. Think of postmodernism, relativism, and a heavy reliance on science and how this is shaping reactions to Christianity and Christian reactions to the world at large. They divide the book into 10 chapters, with each chapter adding something to the conversation about social context. We are introduced to ancient, pluralistic Athens before Christianity. It is a time that was dangerous to new messages. Yet, Paul succeeded. How so? He used rhetoric, persuasion, and followed God. They used the language of the time and place to teach about Christ, using the hallmarks of the time to point to him. I’m not sure I would call this apologetic, Copan’s usual fare, but is it evangelical (without the capital ‘E’). The book gets a bit repetitive at times, but this may be helpful in driving home what Paul was up against. This is a needed book as we face the graveyard of American Christianity.

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber to be an example of a charismatic religious leader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christians do not behead

Dr. Jerry Falwell (en, d. 2007), the founder o...

Dr. Jerry Falwell (en, d. 2007), the founder of Liberty University (en), was a Christian pastor and televangelist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have seen the pictures and videos (or, preferably, read the headlines) about the horrible atrocities committed by ISIS and other Islamic fundamentalist groups (plenty of Muslims oppose ISIS). They do so to appease their god and to keep the land/movement holy. They do so because the believe in the wrath of their malformed god.

Christians long ago gave up beheading for crimes. Indeed, the last major spate of beheadings occurred during the French Revolution. Many of us consider the death penalty wrong. Some do not. Many Christians in those two various camps, however, believe in caring for the poor, healing the sick, and extending a hand of mercy to the downtrodden.

However, there are some Christians who believe every great sign of misfortune is the Wrath of God. These are closeted Supralapsarianists; these are fatalists. For Pat Robertson, every time the wind destroys his combover, he is sure it is because of the LGBT community. For others, such as Jerry Falwell, diseases such as HIV/AIDS are sent by God to destroy this or that demographic and even those who support those demographics! Indeed, because of Falwell’s influence, the United States was slow and failed to help contain the AIDS epidemic that brought death to gays and straights. We are left to wonder how much of our foreign policy is set not by what is best for the country, but because some believe the end of the world is near.

Such is this plague theology; such is fatalism.

Christians still have to answer for it even while other Christians side with the likes of Westboro Baptist Church (albeit with a slightly less vengeful tone). The internet is littered with tombstones of statements and a graveyard of blog posts from these two camps — one begging for mercy, compassion, and a scientific understanding while the other demands vengeance, death, and laughs at the terrible plight of victims. Both claim Christ.

Today, the world watches in horror as the Ebola virus spreads, nearly past the point of containment, on the African continent. When we go to help, the Christian pundits are there to rain heaps of coal upon our head. Doctors Candida Moss and Joel Baden have tried to assuage this wave of hate, but the internet is once again becoming a dark place where Christians get to laugh while many die.

In Congress, however, the Republican Party is deciding right now (or has decided) to gut the President’s request for funding to fight and contain Ebola. Led by Hal Rogers, the committee will cut more than half of the funding request. He is known as the “Prince of Pork,” so why doesn’t he support this bill? We do know he is unfriendly to any paradigm shift in the American cultural landscape and supports religious exemptions to Obamacare.

I am not speaking of Christians who identify with the libertarian spectrum, as they have a philosophical stance against government involvement. Rather, I am speaking about those Christians who would rather support the military-industrial complex than help those they believe are under the judgment of God. Their goal, seemingly, is death.

While Christians do not behead our enemies — rather, we do not behead those we believe suffer under or cause God’s wrath — we have other ways to allow for their death. Christians get elected as Republicans, or Tea Party members, and move to block funding to prevent diseases in some way. Indeed, while Christians no longer behead, we have found a perfectly easy way to reach the same goal. We just let them die and call it God.

While these Christians are doing this, Churches like the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations are mustering their resources and specially trained teams to fight the crisis.

Dear #UMC, let’s reclaim our confessional heritage

English: "John Wesley," by the Engli...

Come on y’all, I was the one who wrote the Shorter Catechism. Why ain’t you using it?

Just a short post on a quick idea…

The UMC is held to be non-confessional. I’m generally okay with that, except we have such wide ranging views there may in fact already exist numerous UMC denominations without the larger one. I am now ready to admit that. I do not think, however, schism is healthy, biblical, or going to happen.

What remains is for us to relearn our Wesleyan and Evangelical Brethren heritage. To do so would require us to reclaim several pieces of doctrine left out of the Doctrinal Standards. From the EB side, we should add the Heidelberg Catechism. From Wesley, we should reclaim the Shorter Catechism which was reworked by Wesley to remove overly Calvinistic parts while retaining several elements of the Reformed Tradition. Granted, both could use an update on language unless there is no chief end of woman.

While the UMC is non-confessional is most ways, our Wesleyan heritage does not completely exclude Confessions of Faith. Indeed, Wesley worked up such a one. Perhaps we should seek to reclaim it.

Thoughts?

the con game of Christianity

The Sting

The Sting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God.1

The early Christians not only would not expose their children, deformed or otherwise, but they would rescue the exposed and make them a part of the community.

I have, lately, seen a lot of articles about attracting others to Christianity. Everyone is worried about number$. We need to do X to attract demographic Y to us or else we will die. No doubt, this is what has led to the extremes forming. The Conservatives are becoming more entrenched, almost to the point of fundamentalism* because they fear the changes (from technology to any form of biblical criticism) while Liberals have nearly completed their march to the great oblivion of inconsequentiality. Why? Because too many seem focused on attracting new members.

Christianity has become something less than a hope for a grand do-over (the cosmic conflagration), ethical impulses, and philosophical considerations about our place within God’s plan all made possible because of the death (and resurrection of Jesus Christ). Rather, it now focuses on megastar pastors (and, more importantly, their downfalls); the latest theological trend (or lack of theology); and the number of people in your bean=bags, folding chairs, or other cool, hip seating circles. We focus on ourselves. Or, worse, we focus on the perceived sin of our neighbor because somehow the only verse we take super-literal and super-missional is James 5.20.

This is the great con of Christianity. We need members to make congregations grow — we measure vitality not by the immeasurable (i.e., the good we do) but by numbers. We need new members; we need new buildings — we need bigger buildings to attract new members to give us new buildings to attract members. It is a vicious cycle Mainliners, Evangelicals and others have fallen into. Fundamentalists, such as independent fundamentalist Baptists and oneness pentecostals, do not focus on this so much as focus on saving souls from the pit of hell using every ounce of fear they can muster. Neither of these approaches work. Instead the approach we must relearn is the method of the early church, something Wesley I believe saw and try to implement.

This method is very simple. We work. We work at correcting the ills of society where we can — depending not on the Law of Empire but on the Law of Grace. When the church was powerless it had the most power. It was not protected and thus it protected. The church led the way in changing morality in the Roman Empire. When the old religions fell, when immorality was worse than we can imagine today, when Christian was persecuted for doing these things it was the faith and religion it should have been. Creeds, doctrines, and our finely expressed theology all matter and must be taught. However, if we are only there to attract people into our buildings rather than serving as a means of delivering God’s reconciling and reforming grace to those around us, we are nothing more than a less successful Amway with prettier, more stationary market stations.

BTW, my local UMC church is awesome at service projects for the sake of service. I’m not bragging. I’m boasting. 

 

 

  1. Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe; vol. 1; The Ante-Nicene Fathers; Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 1172.

is Peter quoting James, James quoting Peter or are both quoting Proverbs…or…

The Church of St. Sophia in Ohrid (1345-1346),...

The Church of St. Sophia in Ohrid (1345-1346), The Repentence of King David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t spend a lot of time in James since it includes very little about people going to hell, but noticed this today:

πρὸ πάντων τὴν εἰς ἑαυτοὺς ἀγάπην ἐκτενῆ ἔχοντες, ὅτι ἀγάπη καλύπτει πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν – 1 Peter 4.8

γινωσκέτω ὅτι ὁ ἐπιστρέψας ἁμαρτωλὸν ἐκ πλάνης ὁδοῦ αὐτοῦ σώσει ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἐκ θανάτου καὶ καλύψει πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν. – James 5.20

Achtemeier has this…

The most puzzling part of the verse consists in the final four words (ἀγάπη καλύπτει πλῆθος ἁμαρτιῶν). While the notion that love covers sin is common in the Bible and early Christian literature, the closeness of this formulation to the Hebrew of Prov 10:12b* and its almost identical form in Jas 5:20* point to the proverbial status of this phrase, a status probably antedating both uses in the NT.1

Using a certain resource, I found a connection to several Clementine letters.

Blessed were we, dearly beloved, if we should be doing the commandments of God in concord of love, to the end that our sins may through love be forgiven us – 1 Clement 50.5

Now I do not think that I have given any mean counsel respecting continence, and whosoever performeth it shall not repent thereof, but shall save both himself and me his counsellor. For it is no mean reward to convert a wandering and perishing soul, that it may be saved. – 2 Clement 15.1

Almsgiving therefore is a good thing, even as repentance from sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving than both. And love covereth a multitude of sins, but prayer out of a good conscience delivereth from death. Blessed is every man that is found full of these. For almsgiving lifteth off the burden of sin – 2 Clement 16.4

and for my friendly gnostic fellow,

All those who anoint themselves with it (.i.e, Truth) take pleasure in it. While those who are anointed are present, | those nearby also profit (from the fragrance). If those anointed with ointment withdraw from them and leave, then those not anointed, who merely stand nearby, still | remain in their bad odor. The Samaritan gave nothing but | wine and oil to the wounded man. It is nothing other than the ointment. It healed the wounds, for “love covers a multitude of sins.”2

In reviewing the ancient instances of this quote – even those making use of James/1 Peter, it looks like it is a recognized proverb (pardon the expression). We shouldn’t think Peter and James are at odds with one another. While James has the reputation of supporting “works righteousness,” I believe they are both saying the same thing. Both are about rescuing the less-than-sober/self-controlled Christian from sins. One calls this love, one calls this repentance. Same thing. Even the Gnostic version alludes to the recapturing of Truth.

So, maybe the early Church didn’t have too divergent a theology at the beginning? And, maybe that theology included the notion that we can aid in (co-responsible for) one another’s journey?

  1. Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: a Commentary on First Peter (ed. Eldon Jay Epp; Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 295.
  2. Wesley W. Isenberg, “The Gospel of Philip (II, 3),” in The Nag Hammadi Library in English (ed. James M. Robinson; 4th rev. ed.; Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1996), 155.