Atonement Part II


In response to Collin’s previous comment, I’m going to take a step back to give a short theological history lesson. I’m also intending to make this blog conversational, so any time I assume too much, let me know so I can retrace my steps. I want this to be interactive, I already know what I think, what I’m interested is hearing your opinion.

Two months ago or so my theology group at church read/discussed Weaver’s book Nonviolent Atonement. Weaver is a pacifist who attempts to rethink our understanding of the atonement in a nonviolent manner. He stresses the historical context that facilitated the different developments of the atonement theory. I’ll keep that in mind while I outline the three main views of atonement in the church.

The early Church Fathers developed their understanding of Jesus’ death in an environment when Christians were enemies of the state. Martyrdom and encounters with the evil inherent in the powers and principalities were common experiences for the early church. Their understanding of the atonement theory generally emphasized Jesus’ confrontations with the evil in society including Satan. One specific theory, the ransom theory, envisioned a mythic world where God and Satan dueled for lordship over mankind. After the Fall, Satan had gained the upper hand. However, God hid Jesus’ perfection from Satan, which led to Satan using Judas (look to the Luke/John narratives, I’ll return to this at a later post) and the powers of Rome to put Jesus to death. God offered Jesus as a ransom (Mark 10) to Satan, but Satan did not know that Jesus could defeat death and thus liberate humanity from the clutches of Satan. Think of the Chronicles of Narnia, except realize that the monotheistic world of Narnia doesn’t offer a perfect translation. Aslan/Jesus offers himself as a ransom to Witch/Satan for the rights of Edmund/humanity. The witch forgot the deeper magic (that Aslan would resurrect and thus break the spell of her death) and because of Aslan’s resurrection Edmund is freed and winter is forever gone from Narnia (i.e. the Witch no longer has power over Narnia as it has been restored to Aslan).

In the 11th century, St Anselm published Why God became Man. He viewed the world from the feudal system where the serfs owed their Lord respect and honor. Now, imagine that the serfs/humanity had offended the honor of the Lord/God because of sin. Because the serfs/humanity are so much lower in the world than Lord/God they cannot properly repay him. Only a Lord could pay him. However, the serfs are the ones that owe him an apology because of the sin that has offended the Lord’s honor. Therefore only someone who was both serf and Lord (man/God) could offer recompense to the Lord whose honor was offended. Thus Jesus’ death on the cross rids humanity of the debt they owed to God, so that they could now be worthy of his salvation. Notice, Satan’s gone. He is no longer the object of Jesus’ death, but now the debt is owed to God. One reason Weaver thinks Anselm subtracted Satan from the equation was because of Christianity’s sovereignty over Europe during the Middle Ages. When Christianity no longer combated the powers of the world but has now assumed that position, it didn’t make much sense to conceive of the world as a battle of the forces of good against evil. Penal substitution, as advocated by the reformers like Luther, was a variant of Anselm’s view that focused on Jesus willfully endured punishment and suffering in our place to satisfy the justice of God. Think of the court scene where Jesus stands in your place to receive the punishment that was rightfull yours…also God’s the judge…and he hates you. I don’t mean to offer a caricature, but this impassible, mechanistic God strikes me as unfaithful to the Biblical narrative.

In response to Anselm’s doctrine of atonement, Abelard responded with his own view: the moral influence theory. Abelard thought that the idea that God required/demanded Jesus’ death as a payment for the debt incurred by humanity violated the love of God. He thought that Jesus’ death/ministry alerted mankind of God’s love with the cross ultimately calling mankind back to God.

Now I’ll start bitching.

Problems w/ Abelard’s view
a) why is Jesus’ martyrdom any different from any other saint?
b) why would Jesus’ death call mankind to the love of God?
c) does the resurrection even matter?

Problems w/ Anselm’s view:
a) God looks more like a tyrant than Abba as Jesus called him
b) Somewhat illogical, humanity’s earned a debt, so only God can pay himself back, how satisfied can God really be?
c) Jesus’ role is functional, his actual ministry’s importance is reduced
d) Satan and evil are no longer important.
e) Why is violence the only appropriate way to repair God’s honor (this is aimed more at penal substitution).  Why would God have to repay violence with violence? But doesn’t Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek?
f) It’s rather un-Trinitarian to ascribe certain characteristics to one part of the Trinity (God the Father as violent/ungracious) while another part of the Trinity (Jesus as nonviolent and forgiving). Jesus ends up looking more like God than God looks like God

I’ll return to Weaver’s narrative Christus Victor in the my next post


2 Responses to “Atonement Part II”

  1. Wes Says:

    Anselm’s view could be derived from antisemitic values. Through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the God of the Hebrew text is killed. Freud attributed this “Christian guilt” as a projection on the Jewish people, i.e. ‘We didn’t kill your God, you killed ours on the cross.” Painting God the Father as violent and ungracious is an effective way of deteriorating the attraction to the Jewish God and stimulating interest in the God of the Christians.

  2. jbsrh18 Says:

    Yes, I see your point. While I agree somewhat that identifying God with oppression, violence, and anger would feed anti-Semitic values, I think this view only comes about by having un-Trinitarian views that lead to disgusting notions of the cross. If Jesus and God are in close communion then the cross turns out to support Moltmann’s notion of the suffering God, the God who is in solidarity with all those who suffered. The God who abandons Godself in the cry ‘My God, my God why hast thou Forsaken me?’, the God who doesn’t believe in himself, but rather believes in humanity and loves humanity enough to combat the forces of evil that would keep humanity caught in oppression, violence, and exploitation. Christianity cannot explain away suffering or evil but merely point to the cross to offer encouragement to the person suffering that God herself has already experienced a similar fate.
    I’ll post more about the death-of-God soon and the theology that’s attempted to explain it

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