Passovering Your Atonement Theory

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 12.03.06 PMIt is a fact that most atonement theories operate on the basis of (lightly understood and sometimes seriously distorted) Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

It is also a fact that Jesus and Paul connect the cross to Passover.

It is also a fact that very few atonement theories give any attention to Passover. Passover combines liberation from oppressors with defeat of their powers. Those themes, too, are often ignored in theological studies of atonement.

In NT Wright’s new book, The Day the Revolution Began, Passover is given full play — maybe too much play at times — but the emphasis in Wright’s book compensates for the almost total absence of Passover in many atonement theories. In chp 11 of the book Wright focuses on Corinthians, Philippians and Colossians, showing the multi-valency of cross but specifically seeking to illuminate each by locating each in the larger biblical narrative, an example of which will be our last quotation in the post below.

What do we lose when we omit the Passover theme? What can we gain by relocating the cross in a Passover narrative? What kind of culture does a Passover-cross establish in our churches? Think with me on this, thanks.

I begin by citing three texts in 1 Corinthians that demonstrate the centrality of Passover (NRSV): 1 Cor 5:7-8; 6:19-20; 11:26.

1Cor. 5:7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

1Cor. 6:19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

1Cor. 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

These are Passover resonances, and the final text is from the Passover event at the heart of the Last Supper. Hence, in this letter Passover shapes how Paul wants folks to think of the cross.

2 Corinthians focuses on the cross as an expression of God’s loving intention, not a capricious god’s anger against an innocent victim.

The point throughout is that the crucifixion of the Messiah is not just an event in the past that changed the world once and for all, though it certainly is that. It is not just the “mechanism’ of salvation, though if we must use that language we can do so without inaccuracy. The Messiah’s crucifixion was not a strange, one-off deal through which God played a trick on sin and death, after which normal operations were resumed, power went back to being what it always was, and the normal human lifestyles of honor and shame, boasting and prestige, social climbing and pretension could be picked up again where they had left off. Precisely because the Messiah’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God himself at work in generous self-giving love to overthrow all power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power, that same divine nature would now be at work through the ministry of the gospel not only through what was said, but through the character and the circumstances of the people who were saying it (251).

He turns to 2 Corinthians 5:14–6:2, which I cite, and then add only one comment by Wright:

2Cor. 5:14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

2Cor. 5:16   From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2Cor. 6:1    As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.  2 For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,

and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

[Now Wright:] His point is that the cross has liberated people from sin, so that they can be God-reflecting, image-bearing, working models of divine covenant faithfulness in action (253).

For Philippians he turns naturally to the poem of 2:6-11 to make these observations:

First, the poem is clearly telling the story of Jesus with the cross at its center (255).

Second, the cross here is the means of victory over all the powers of the world (255).

Third, the poem in its present context is setting out the pattern of life that is both the foundation and the model for the way Jesus’s followers ought to behave in relation to one another (256).

For Colossians he looks to Colossians 2:13-15, and I quote the text in italics with Wright’s commentary following:

Col. 2:13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses,  14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.  15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. 

What follows now is one of the biggest windows onto Wright’s understanding of the cross in a narrative shaped theology.

So how does “forgiveness” result in “victory over the powers”? Here we go back to our earlier analysis of sin and idolatry. The idols—and that includes human rulers when they are idolized, whether formally (as in the Roman Empire) or informally—gain their power because humans give it to them. Humans are designed to worship God and exercise responsibility in his world. But when humans worship idols instead, so that their imagebearing humanness corrupts itself into sin, missing the mark of the human vocation, they hand over their power to those same idols. The idols then use this power to tyrannize and ultimately to destroy their devotees and the wider world. But when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power (260).

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