Thursday, June 20, 2013

know your theories of atonement

Here's an interview with Bono from a couple of years ago, which is, against all odds, quite interesting. They get into a talk about grace and Christ, and Bono hits us with his theory of atonement.

At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It's clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I'm absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that "as you reap, so you will sow" stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions....

God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled . It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven....

When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my s— and everybody else's. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man?

The thing is, I didn't think it reflected any of the classic theories of atonement that I'm familiar with. Granted, I'm a layman, but this looked like a fairly new lens on the work of Christ, and so far as it goes makes sense.

As some old dorm hall-mates and I were discussing this, it occurred to me that whatever your religious background, you might not have a good grasp of theories of atonement. Even educated Christians tend to lump it all together, and often use imagery and language that reflects different schools of thought. It's all well and good to think different thoughts simultaneously, but it's also good to make sure you know that's what's going on.

So, let's take a tour of Atonement. Eventually, in Christian thought, we all come around to a central question: How on earth does the death by crucifixion of that one guy over there end up with the salvation of all of us over here? Anyone can say, "He died for our sins," but that doesn't really explain what exactly is going on. So, what is going on?

Over the years, then, people have come up with different explanations.

Moral Influence
Philosophical family: Patristic (that is, first forwarded by the Church Fathers in the first few centuries)
Persuasive voice: Abelard, 
Saint Augustine
Scripture: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." (Matthew 6:10)
Nutshell: Living, He transforms us by example; 

teaching, he transforms us by clear instruction; 
founding the Church, He transforms us through the body of all Christians; 
dying, He transforms us by demonstrating the depth of His love for us; 
rising, He transforms us by showing us the new life that awaits us
Picture: The climax of "Dead Poet's Society." Robin Williams has been a teacher, mentor, and exemplar to his students, bringing them to life and showing them how to be. After he's been sacrificed, they rise to their chairs to imitate him
Today: Unitarians, liberal Protestants (whose watered-down version of this theory often robs it of its ancient robustness)

This theory of atonement is one of the two big heavy hitters that (simultaneously) dominated the church for most of its history. Some will tell you that this theory started in the 12th century with Abelard, who did in fact put it forth as a rebuttal to Anselm's newer courtroom ideas, but really he was restating what most of the Church Fathers took as axiom. That seems hard for many of us to believe, since the younger theories have taken over among American evangelical Protestants, who are usually more theologically educated than other rank-and-file Christians. But early Christians viewed Christ's moral influence in all the above-mentioned areas as the major path toward reconciliation with God.

Before you say this sounds like a Sisyphean try-harder-do-better gospel, consider the huge proportion of the Old and New Testaments that emphasize morality, not to mention the over thirty accounts of a final judgment clearly based on moral conduct. It's no coincidence that later theologies that emphasize destiny as opposed to free will would de-emphasize the free-will-loving moral influence theory.

Though he mainly speaks in terms of Ransom, Saint Augustine is a great source on this too: he appears to have almost no concept of a furious God who demands appeasement, instead picturing a loving God plucking him out of the mire and saving him from the misery of sin.

Philosophical family: Patristic
Persuasive voice: Origen
Scripture: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, Who gave himself a ransom for all..." (I Tim 2:5-6)
Nutshell: Since the Fall, Satan holds power over us, ultimately demanding our death; Christ gives himself to die in our place — but then rises again, thwarting Satan
Picture: The climax of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"
Todayformally, some Eastern Orthodox; informally, Catholics and some Evangelicals

This is the other big heavy hitter, that, along with the above Moral Influence theory, dominated the church for a long period. Scholars consider this to have been effectively trounced by St. Anselm, who pointed out that Satan's purchase on us was an outlaw purchase to begin with and God owed him nothing. But there's deep truth to the idea that, while we're on earth and in thrall to sin, we are in thrall to Satan, and that God has (in His mysterious way) allowed that power to Satan for a time. The New Testament is full of references (many by Jesus) to Satan as being temporarily in charge of this world.

Surely this theory wouldn't be quite so picturesque to us today without the strong storytelling gift of professor Lewis, who so memorably dressed it up in fantasy garb for his heart-piercing tale. I'd venture that even the strongest Calvinist has been brought to tears by those chapters of tragedy and triumph.

Christus Victor
Philosophical family: Patristic
Persuasive voice: Gustav Aulén, in the 1931 book of that title
Scripture: "Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Hebrews 2:14)
Nutshell: Since the Fall, Satan holds us captive by our sin; Christ defeats Satan and sets us free
Picture: The climax of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"
Today: Eastern Orthodox, emergent churches, Catholics, some Lutherans

Aulén claims that this is actually what the ancient Church Fathers believed, and that what we call the Ransom theory is an oversimplified paganized distortion. But he brings in arguments and nuances that the Church Fathers didn't, and many believe he's arrived at a fresh expression of the Ransom theory, fresh enough, and different enough from the other, to have its own name.

Potter fans will remember that Ginny Weasley wasn't just some damsel in distress, like the chick in an old silent-movie melodrama: Rowling, a believer, has Ginny captured through her own — what? — foolishness, waywardness, human nature. A masterstroke, because Harry the Victor, in defeating Voldemort's serpent, isn't just freeing an innocent bystander. There's a distinct element of grace and forgiveness of her sin.

This theory is attractive, first because it takes away Anselm's criticism: Satan hasn't been paid off in any way — rather, he's been defeated — and second because the image of God as hero rather than (as we'll see) judge is irresistible to mythmakers and storytellers. Beowulf, St. George, Sigurd/Siegfried and Brynhild/Brunnhilde, and a hundred other tales draw on what may be a collective memory of a brave hero defeating evil (often embodied as a serpent or dragon) at great cost, even death, then rising from death to rescue and wed his bride. Perhaps it's so irresistible, perhaps this collective memory is there, for a reason.

Philosophical family: Scholastic 
(that is, first forwarded by scholars)
Persuasive voice: Irenaeus
Scripture: "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (I Corinthians 15:21-22)
Nutshell: He becomes a real human, and by obediently and sinlessly living every stage from infancy to maturity He sanctifies human life and undoes the work of Adam, who brought disobedience and sin into human life
Picture: Bill Murray on his final day in "Groundhog Day," living each moment rightly and breaking the grip of sin that kept him trapped — but now picture him living just that last day on behalf of all the other sinful Bill Murrays trapped in selfishness and foolishness
Today: informally, some Catholics

Especially attractive is Irenaeus's conviction that the Fall is part of God's plan. Adam is free to sin because God knows the Second Adam is on the way. Sin and death are therefore evil but necessary, for it's only in the belly of the whale that Jonah turns to God and becomes obedient.

The key moment in our salvation, then, is Christ's incarnation ("united," in Irenaeus's lovely phrase, "to His own workmanship") rather than His crucifixion (as the Ransom theory might see it) or His resurrection (as the Christus Victor theory might see it) — though those moments are vitally important too (Irenaeus again: "as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one").

As far as I know, this vision of Recapitulation doesn't hold much sway today. I can't think of any songs or hymns or sermons that speak its language the way I can for some of these other ones.

Philosophical familyScholastic
Persuasive voice: Anselm of Canterbury
Scripture:  "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." (I John 2:1-2)

Nutshell: He paid the debt we owed
Picture: A civil court: we're unable to pay the debt we've incurred; Christ satisfies it
Today: Catholics, mainline Protestants, some evangelicals

Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, and a big thinker in Christian history, lived in the wake of the Norman Conquest. His way of thinking owes much to feudal culture: every knight owes his lord honor, but we're sinful and can never give God, our lord, the debt of honor He deserves. So He Himself comes as a spotless knight to die the ultimate death and give ultimate glory to God in our place.

These days, we don't talk much about the feudal language that suffuses Anselm, and transfer the whole thing to something more like a courtroom with God as judge. The same transaction applies: our sins incur a debt which is too great for us to pay. Since Christ was sinless and under no obligation to die, His payment of that debt releases all.

While the Patristic theories point to St. Paul's repeated references to Christ as overthrowing the oppressive power of the Law — so that atonement means subverting it, depriving it of its power to condemn — the Scholastic theories point to Paul's references to Christ as fulfilling the Law — so that atonement means reinforcing it, absorbing its power to condemn into the only one who can take it.

Penal Substitution
Philosophical family: Scholastic
Persuasive voice: Charles Hodge, J. I. Packer
Scripture: "But He was wounded for our transgressions...and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
" (Isaiah 53:5-6)
Nutshell: He took the punishment we deserved
Picture: A criminal court: we're on trial for the sins we've committed; Christ gives Himself as a substitute
Today: conservative Protestants, evangelicals

I've listed the 19th-century powerhouse Hodge and the 20th-century powerhouse Packer as the most persuasive, but John Calvin — the ur-Protestant powerhouse — deserves his due as well in formulating this idea. Notice the difference between this substitutional theory and the other: Anselm says He paid our debt, while Calvin (who was a lawyer) says He took our punishment. Calvin's theory fits in better in the post-feudal world that was emerging in his time.

It's still the model for many many Christians in America, who bear Calvin's DNA, and who simply can't understand that anyone could see it another way. Several passages of Scripture seem to cast Christ's death as a sort of penal substitution, especially for those going into it predisposed to think that way, but the fact that this theory arrived relatively late (Calvin was born in 1509) means that Christendom didn't have it for three quarters of its history. UPDATE: This guy, at least, claims — I'd love to see his sources — that numerous early-church people put forth this theory, and it's certainly true that Augustine and others speak in those terms often enough that it wasn't a foreign idea. 

What's attractive here is the notion that God is in charge, and is ultimately just, and that His justice isn't arbitrary. The picture of an all-powerful God sacrificing Himself to take punishment for our sin, rather than just blowing that sin off, and where He Himself is the final arbiter of good, seems shimmeringly righteous compared to the dark paganism of the Ransom theory where Satan is the one being placated. It's also an effective way of undoing medieval superstitions about penance and purgatory. With this idea, the Protestants can cast off all the barnacles the Catholic Church gathered over 1500 years, and in fact the Catholic Church itself.

Philosophical family: Scholastic-Armenian
Persuasive voice: Hugo Grotius
Scripture: "God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood. He did this to demonstrate His justice, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished —He did it to demonstrate His justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus." (Romans 3:25-26)

Nutshell: God forgives freely — apart from punishment — but gives Himself to suffer and die for the sake of maintaining divine justice; all who accept His gift are reconciled
Today: some Methodists, Nazarenes, Salvation Army, a few Baptists

It's easy to misunderstand here, so look carefully at the reasoning in St Paul's writing in the letter to the Romans. Why did Christ die? Because sin must be punished and can't go unpunished? Because someone must pay, either us or Him? Because He can't just, you know, forgive our sins without killing someone? Look again: St Paul seems to say (according to the Arminian reading) that God is perfectly capable of forgiving us while leaving sin unpunished, but dies to demonstrate His justice.

There's lots going on. First, notice that this seems to be more cogent about justice than the Penal Subsitution theory. After all, how can punishing the innocent be justice, not to mention letting the guilty go free? But on the other hand if God just plain forgives, that's mush: sin isn't to be taken lightly. Instead, Christ's death upholds the moral government of God as much as our punishment would have, but we're nonetheless redeemed.

Second, it places God above justice rather than subservient to it, while maintaining that He's righteous and not a lawless ubergod who breaks His own rules just 'cause He can. There's a big difference between saying that He can't leave sin unaddressed and saying that He won't.

Third, it affirms our free will: "through [our] faith in His blood." That's where the transaction is completed, because if His death was merely substitutionary, then why the, uh, heck is there a possibility of Hell? As the Salvation Army's Charles Booth says, "If a debt is paid, it is paid, and the sinner's unbelief does not in any way affect the fact. If I owe a woman 5 pounds, and some one pays it for me, my creditors cannot sue me for the sum." So His death is in place of a penalty, but not the penalty itself, and we may accept or reject His gift.

* * *

Those are the biggies. There are several more minor ones, some just footnotes of these, and some just wacky. And then there are some theories of atonement that haven't made it into scholarly books or seminary courses (that I know of), but that nonetheless are really in play among numbers of believers.

* * *

Purifier MY TERM
Philosophical family: ?
Persuasive voice: ?
Scripture: "Yet now hath He reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and without blemish and unreproveable before Him." (Colossians 1:22)

Nutshell: God desires communion with us but His presence cannot abide imperfection. Therefore, God Himself covers Himself in our sin (where He is capable of devouring it) and cleanses us to His perfection, enabling us to be in His presence
Picture: Isaiah finds himself in the presence of the holy; his first reaction is to bemoan his sinful state; an angel comes to purify him with fire (Isaiah 6:1-7)
Today: informally, evangelicals

Lots of Christians I know use this language, operating on what we might call a priestly model. God isn't a judge here, but rather a perfect and holy deity. No "punishment," no "debt," but rather purification. We're not "captive," we're impure, unclean, stained by sin and unable to dispel it. Christ's work, seen this way, is to take our sin upon Himself, and since He can dispel it the holiness of God is undefiled.

I've never heard this theory discussed as such. No school of thought puts it forward, but it reflects a definite belief among many Christians, at least in my circle. Any theologians among us care to weigh in? Is this new?

Bridge  MY TERM
Philosophical family: ?
Persuasive voice: ?
Scripture: "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ." (Ephesians 2:13)

Nutshell: God, complete and pure, is unreachable by sinful Man; Christ, who is both God and man, lives, dies, rises from death to the Father's presence, and therefore acts as the bridge we may all now cross 
Picture: The pamphlet diagram, known to all evangelicals, of two cliffs and a valley between, with Man on one side and God on the other; the next diagram shows the cross fitting neatly in the chasm
Today: Church of Christ, Southern Baptists, other evangelicals

What exactly does sin do to us? Does it condemn us, as the Calvinists say? Indebt us beyond our means, as Anselm says? Does it hold us captive, as the Church Fathers say? Starkly different versions of what's going on in our souls, no? And they call for different answers.

Maybe it just separates us from God, so that we, broken and powerless, can find no way to reach the fellowship with God we so desperately need. In the Bridge theory, the answer is that Christ's work in life, death, and resurrection unites God and humanity and bridges that separation.

This simple picture of atonement is known to all evangelicals because of the unavoidable "Four Spiritual Laws" tract, which, by the way, admirably steers clear of promoting any specific atonement theory in detail.

But it's hard to fit in to any historic theory. The way it's explained sometimes sounds substitutionary (more civil than penal), but carries distinct Ransom/Victor and Recapitulation vibes as well. My guess is that since most of the people who represent the faith this way are conscientious about getting their theology from the Bible rather than from any (official) body of thought, they follow the Bible's hodgepodge example without trying to distill it. Evangelicals don't have a 500- or 1000- or 2000-year intellectual tradition to draw on. They're often proud of that fact. This eloquent vision of Christ's work might just show that they're on to something.

Anakarmic MY TERM
Philosophical family: Scholastic
Persuasive voice: Bono
Scripture: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:23)

Nutshell: Christ takes on the sins of the world, so that what we put out does not come back to us, and our sinful nature does not reap its natural consequence, death
Picture: The scene from "Superman" where a train speeds toward a ravine where the bridge is broken; inertia and gravity demand the train's crash, but Superman intervenes and stops it
Today: Bono, maybe soon others?

We can fit the Anakarmic theory in as a fourth alternative to the related substitutionary theories: Satisfaction says that Christ through His death paid off our debt to God, Penal Substitution says that Christ endured the punishments for our every sin, Governmental theory says that, though He didn't endure the exact punishments due each of us for each sin, He did endure an emblematic punishment, thus not interrupting God's justice.

Anakarmic theory's kicking-off point is that there are natural consequences to sin, ultimately death, and Christ interrupted the consequences that were coming to us. In that sense, this theory is as Patristic as it is Scholastic, because the Law here isn't fulfilled. It's thwarted, interrupted, defeated — so far as we can equate the Law with natural consequences. Is gravity God's punishment for jumping off a building? Anakarmic theory takes us out of the kidnapper's lair, Satan's prison, God's courtrooms, all of those imposed outcomes, and takes us instead to the natural world (of course ordained by God), in which when you jump off a building you go splat. We in our foolishness and rebellion do just that, sinning and bringing on karmic punishment, but God's grace interrupts the process and saves us.

* * *

Why do we have to have any theory at all? Isn't it enough to say "Jesus saves" and get on with it? Certainly it is. Plenty have. But even then you're probably operating on some unstated underlying thought about exactly what's going on here — what exactly is wrong with us and how to solve it. That underlying thought matters immensely because it affects your view of the world. It affects how you see yourself in the world, and how you see, and treat, the people in it.

So it's valuable to try to get a human handle on these eternal matters. Even though we'll never really comprehend them, we can gain some wisdom and some insight into God's character, and some sense of what He's done for us.

I tend to think that if you choose one and only one of the above theories, you may be limiting yourself. After all, as we've seen here, the scriptures that Christians hold dear seem to flit from one metaphor to another. Might we also flit with them? To quote the theologian Hans Boersma, it's good to allow the whole choir to sing together. It cancels out my sour notes and yours, and creates a joyful noise.


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