I Think Your Atonement Might Be Wrong [VIDEO]

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  • I thought this was a very good interview. I have to say though that the interviewer looked like he got his whole wardrobe from “Hipsters R Us.”

    More troubling was all the weird Christian zionism stuff riddled throughout the show and the commercials. It set off my creepy meter in a bit way.

    • I thought the same about the interviewer’s outfit – funny!

      Nice work, Tony. We covered Nadia’s Animate session on the cross a couple weeks ago and this will be a helpful addition to that conversation…a little more meat to chew on. Thanks!

    • Drew is quite the enigma!

  • You need to bust out your pipe, Tony!

  • Dan Hauge

    What . . . exactly is the deal with Lesea? When I first saw some of Drew’s clips I figured it was some subversive project, using the superficial aesthetics of traditional TV preachers and networks like TBN, while delivering a more progressive radical-theology-type message. If you watch the entire episode on youtube, the initial interview between the hosts about Israel and Palestine seems to be such a thing–using the usual ‘lets talk about Israel’ trope from religious broadcasting, but they seemed to be talking about the issue in a more politically nuanced way.
    Yet the ‘trips to the Holy Land’ ads and the calls for prayer requests do seem to fall in a more evangelical/charismatic theological vein. Is that even more super-subversive? (We’ll politely listen to your prayer request and send you a Peter Rollins tract?) Or is it a hodge-podge of theologies? I’m kind of fascinated by this whole thing.

    • It was, indeed, fascinating. It’s all those things. Like a normal televangelical network with a young Lacan walking around.

      • Now if we can only convince Drew to write in a similar fashion to how he speaks: using language we can understand.

        • Dan Hauge

          Ah, but to use language that one can *(under/stand) is simply to reinforce the standing/(under/stand)ing binary that commodifies speech-acts into (a)ttainable objects.

          • Nathan

            This. Pure genius.

          • Lara

            What does that mean? Communication only works if your words are understood by the listener. That goes for Christianity as well as blog comments.

            • Dan Hauge

              Overall, I agree with you, Lara. I was poking fun at some philosophical language. While I do accept that the reader or listener always contributes to making meaning; at some point we still want to communicate. I hope 🙂

              • Ya, I realized later that you were teasing. =) I’m a little slow. Sorry. =)

                • Lausten North

                  Sarcasm is extremely difficult without facial queues. Nice job Dan.

          • Is it just me or are the comments not working correctly?

  • It wasn’t “important” in the early church as a distinct doctrine because it was assumed in the formulation of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

    Orthodoxy sums it up in the Pascha Liturgy:

    “Christ is risen from the dead
    Trampling down death by death
    And upon those in the tombs restoring life.”

    The simplest expression of the understanding of the Atonement from the true church there is.

    • Simon

      That’s interesting Andrew. So would you say that the penal substitutionary atonement is not orthodox? There is nothing in this statement to suggest that Jesus took on our sin and that his sacrifice quenched the wrath of an angry God.

      • It’s certainly no Orthodox according to that particular doxological formula. Penal subsitution assumes the problem humanity is saved from by Christ’s sacrifice is guilt for sin, while that doxology begins from a different starting point: What we’re being saved from is not guilt, but death. Different problem, different solution. Christ is not substitute but healer.

      • Simon,

        The penal idea isn’t at all Orthodox and it is not how the Orthodox read the Fathers. The idea is nowhere in the Philokalia and the Fathers understanding of “subsititutionary” has been co-opted by many to support the penal idea. My recommendation is that before those who are not in the Orthodox communion refer to what the church Fathers meant that they consult the Orthodox understanding which has been preserved from the Early church through the ages.

  • Tony,

    I’m going to spend the first hour of my radio program tonight offering a Biblical and historical (church fathers) rebuttal to what you said in this interview. My program airs at 6PM Eastern tonight on Pirate Christian Radio http://www.piratechristianradio.com

    I’d love for you to tune in and you have an open invitation to come on my radio program to discuss this topic.

    • Tony, PLEASE DO THIS! Fingers crossed…

    • Love to, Chris. But I can’t. Not tonight.

      • Maybe a blog response (takedown) to Chris’ “Biblical and historical (church fathers) rebuttal”…?

      • Tony,

        Please consider it for next week. My program is booked for the rest of the week but next week is wide open.

      • matt

        Hey Tony, why did you delete all the verses Rosebrough listed? Is it because they absolutely demolished your argument? Oh ya, you’ll delete this too.

        • I don’t recall there ever being a list of verses in Rosebrough’s original reply, and I think I saw it almost immediately after it was posted. But maybe I’m wrong and there were some there. In any event, I find it highly improbably that Tony deleted them “because they absolutely demolished” his argument, since a biblical verse isn’t a refutation of any argument at all. A biblical verse can inform an argument, or be used as evidence in an argument, but, particularly standing on its own stripped of context, it’s not really much of anything at all.

    • I would love to hear that discussion!

  • Chris Fillingham

    Thanks for the reflections on the Atonement.
    I wonder if you’re missing one of the other major streams of thought. Perhaps the cross is not the single most significant cosmic event. Many of the Church Fathers as well as the Eastern church would suggest that it was the incarnation. Have you given much thought to theosis? Whatever your take, this conversation would be greatly enhanced by a serious consideration of the cosmic implications of the life of God injected into the life of humanity via the incarnation as central to salvation.

    • You can only say so much in an 8 minute interview. I cover the Eastern church in my book.

  • Here is a link to my rebuttal http://youtu.be/t_gC4rTst7A

    Here is a link to the writings of the Church Fathers that demonstrate that they believed and taught Penal Substitution http://bit.ly/X73pNn


    • Christ,

      Wow, I listened to that for about as long as I could stand it. Right from the start I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to find much common ground with your approach since you began with an open mockery of the idea that theology was in any sense a human activity, a position that I find to be nonsense.

      Since it would be pointless to argue the details of your position with you since we don’t even agree on first principles, I’ll just say that the main reason why I can’t agree with you regarding your conclusions is because I can’t even agree with you on what it is that we’re *doing* when we do theology. Of *course* theology is a human activity, “second order discourse” as Tony says in the interview. It is the reflection of the Christian community on the experience of God in Jesus Christ.

      You, on the other hand, want to treat a particular theological approach to the experience of God in Christ as itself revelatory, rather than as a response to revelation, and I think that’s a fatally flawed and ultimately fruitless approach to doing theology. What’s more, it’s innately immune to any kind of criticism or capacity for growth. Since you *know* that your theology is a revelation from God (rather than a human attempt to understand revelation), then it is by definition impossible for your theology to be wrong, and thus impossible for you to learn anything from any other alternative approach to theology. As a result, you *think* you’re reading your theology off of the biblical texts that you quote and the early theology that you reference, but you don’t, you read your theology *into* those texts. They aren’t there to begin with. You put them there, and then treat the fact that you find them there as evidence that they were there all along.

      No moment in your presentation made this more obvious (or was or cringeworthy), than when you said: “Now let’s look at what the Bible has to say about Jesus Christ,” and then began with *Isaiah* as though that were a completely obvious and transparent move that didn’t require any kind of additional theological justification. And then just proceeded as if the entire passage was clearly about Jesus self-evidently and *without remainder.* Again, I just find this whole approach to theology to be utterly vacuous.

      Theology is the Christian community’s reflection on the revelation of God in Christ. It reads that revelation *back* into the Hebrew scriptures and finds new dimensions of meaning in those scriptures through it’s understanding of how it is that those passages evoke Jesus Christ. Christ becomes their biblical hermeneutic. But you want to deny that there is a hermeneutic of any kind, beyond your own preferred one. I’m not sure how any constructive conversation could take place when you begin from those parameters, unless it were a whole conversation about theological method.

      I could say more, but probably shouldn’t.

      • Of course, that salutation should have been “Chris.” I’m a typo machine!

    • Chris,

      They did not believe and did not teach a penal idea. It’s as simple as that. Read them like this: death itself is the punishment and the death and resurrection heal us of that punishment – if we so choose to be healed at all. For Reformed theology as it now stands, both the very idea of who God is and what human nature is are not consistent with the teachings of the Fathers. It sounds like your entire worldview needs to be rearranged before you can get to a proper understanding. I know I sound condescending and that isn’t my intent. But among Orthodox there is a right way and a wrong way to understand the church Fathers. Unfortunately most have just got it wrong and it’s not just you.

  • I think you suggested this in your book, but I didn’t hear it as much in your interview. Are these theories mutually exclusive? The first time I heard the atonement theories in a freshman theology class, I thought to myself, “Yeah, so what’s the fighting all about?” I think a form of penal substitution is suggested in Isaiah 53, but it’s certainly not the whole picture of the atonement. There are theologians that see no problem between Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, and Scapegoat Theory (e.g. J.I. Packer). I wouldn’t call for a different atonement, but instead a richer atonement.

    • No, not mutually exclusive. Each sees the problem differently. The cross is always the solution. The question is, What Is The Question?

    • I think a problem that we have been confused in thinking is that “substitution” *must* mean penal. Orthodoxy understand substitution but a *penal* substitution is an heretical idea. I just posted on this trying to re-frame it a little. Follow the link off my name above.

  • SuperStar

    Is the single most defining event of Christianity the crucifixion of Christ or is it the Resurrection of Christ? Obviously you can’t have Resurrection without Death, but without the Resurrection there is no Christianity.

    • They exist in a necessary dialectical relationship with one another. Thus the crucifixion is always the crucifixion of the resurrected Christ, and the resurrection is always the resurrection of the crucified Christ. They’re two sides of the same coin and thus are *jointly* the defining event of Christianity: crucifixion/resurrection.

      • Yes, I think we should see it as one *event*

    • In an interview that we taped for a later show, Drew asked me the same thing. Under duress, I admitted that I think the event of God in Jesus is important in this order: 1) incarnation, 2) crucifixion, 3) resurrection.

      • I’ve been reflecting on your notion that the incarnational aspect of Jesus’ life is of primary importance within Christianity. I’m warming to it as it marries my mystical/contemplative image of who Jesus was with the more traditional view of Jesus as the Christ. It becomes reasonable to find credence then that all human DNA contains the devine. God in us — us in God.

        I’m off to ponder some more… Thanks, as always!

  • Luke Allison

    Just for the record, the way the fathers talk about Jesus’ atonement as substitutionary is very different than the way the Reformers characterized it. And it’s remarkably different from the way modern day Calvinists talk about it.
    I would even go so far as to say that the evidence you’ve linked to shows that the Fathers taught “substitution” but not “penal substitution.” The idea of Christ dying in our place is found throughout the Scriptures. The idea of God as a feudal lord whose honor has been offended is not so clear.
    Also….Christus Victor.

  • Luke Allison

    Oops. That was supposed to be in reply to Chris “The Gatekeeper” Rosebrough.

  • Don’t the most important stories in our life often have more than one meaning? Why does Christ on the cross has to have exactly one meaning?

  • Pingback: Tony Jones: “I Think Your Atonement Might Be Wrong” | Stand Up for the Truth()

  • Pingback: The “When” of Atonement()

  • Sean

    The stupidity of the argument that “Jesus died on the cross to show that scapegoat ‘does not work'” is seen in at least two ways.

    1. First, it requires the assumption that human sacrifice was the method of scapegoating. The Jews did not offer human sacrifices. This makes God a fool because no one would have understood it (and apparently no one did until the 20th century). Jones makes it sound like the scapegoat is an unbiblical concept in “primitive religion”. But the scapegoat is a biblical concept (Lev 16). Under Jones’ idea, God said, “Scapegoating works” but later said “scapegoating doesn’t work.” If Jones is right then God spoke out of both sides of his mouth. That’s crazy.

    2. It makes God unethical. Looking at Jones’ view, why would God offer a human sacrifice to show that scapegoating would not work? Certainly there are other ways. There is no necessity for this method.

    I’ve heard a similar idea that God showed human sacrifice was not part of his plan through Abraham and Isaac. In that case, God provided a ram as a sacrifice. It is logically consistent … no human sacrifice … instead, animal sacrifice. The argument as I see it…

    a) violence doesn’t cure resentment;
    b) scapegoating is violence;
    c) so I (God) am going to do violence to show that scapegoating doesn’t cure resentment.

    That logic “doesn’t work”.

    Finally, what in the world are they talking about when they mention “salvation” at the end? If Jesus did not provide a penal substitutionary atonement for sin then “salvation” loses its meaning entirely.

    • I think this is a misunderstanding of what the scapegoat theory as applied to atonement implies. Let me try to address your arguments in order:

      1. There is nothing in the scapegoat theory that implies that sacrifice *must* be human. In fact, my recollection is that Girard views the Hebrew adoption of the scapegoat as an advance over it’s cultural competitors that actually did practice human sacrifice.

      Beyond that, I think you misunderstand what it is that an atonement theory actually *does*. You seem to think that an atonement theory describes what *God* was up to, but that’s a misunderstanding of what theology is. An atonement theory, like any theological theory, is an attempt to explain how we can understand what was taking place on the cross. It’s an application of human reflection to the narrative that we are given in the Gospels. The *Gospels* don’t tell us what God was thinking. The Gospels give us an account of what happened. It’s our own reflection on the meaning and significance of what happened, in light of our own practice and tradition, that constitutes theology. So it’s silly to say that “God was a fool because no one would have understood this until the 20th century.” You’re mistaking a theological account of the meaning of the crucifixion with knowledge of the mind of God. Whatever else theology might be, it’s not a window into the mind of God. That’s what revelation is. Theology is our attempt to understand revelation.

      A similar criticism can be levied against your point about scapegoating in the Bible. You’re mistaking the attempt of ancient Hebrew society to deal with the problem of mimetic violence in light of it’s covenantal relationship with God with a direct revelation from God. Mimetic violence is, on the Girardian account, a *universal* problem. Sacrificial systems of all kinds develop as an attempt to grapple with the threat of social dissolution caused by mimetic violence. The scapegoat was the way it was handled in Hebrew society, which was a big step up from the policies of human sacrifice practiced in other societies, and so in that sense consistent with the Covenant between the Israelites and God.

      2. On the second point, God doesn’t *offer a human sacrifice* to show that human sacrifice is immoral. Jesus isn’t *offer* as a human sacrifice by God. Jesus *becomes* a human sacrifice through his death as a means of overcoming mimetic violence. But when scapegoating works, it does so because we are able to convince ourselves that the victim is guilty (or otherwise carries our guilt for us), but Jesus exposes the bankruptcy of the sacrificial system precisely because he is acknowledged by all is *being innocent*. In his innocence, he represents the innocent victims of every regime and exposes the evil at the heart of sacrificial systems. Furthermore, through his teaching, he exemplifies another way of being-in-the-world, namely that of positive mimesis, mimetic love if you will. That mimetic love is the heart of Jesus’ teaching and suggests a means by which to overcome the structures of mimetic violence. Finally, through his resurrection by God, Jesus defeats the structures of mimetic violence, by refusing to remain the innocent victim. In triumphing over death, he triumphs over the whole sacrificial system. He is the innocent victim who exposes the system, but he is also the conquering lamb, who defeats the mechanism of mimetic violence through overcoming death.

      Tony, please tell me if I’ve misrepresented anything in this. It’s my own read on Girard, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it’s how I understand that Girardian theory to work.

  • chad m

    i’m loving this conversation and am further excited to read your book. i particularly enjoyed your response to the question about why atonement theology matters. i remember first hearing all the particular theories and thinking, “Wherever one leans on this issue, a distinct picture of God begins to develop.” for me, the simple idea stated in the John 3:16 still grips me – motivated by God’s love for creation, he sent his Son, Jesus, to the cross. in my opinion, penal substitutionary atonement communicates an angry, vengeful God, who can only be satisfied by more death. is this the God of the Bible? it appears to me that the whole counsel of Scripture describes a God who pursues people, even when they deserve punishment, and makes ways for them to return to him out of his love for the very people he has created.

  • Stephen Abbott

    Tony, you are absolutely correct, and thank you for this interview and book. This modern interpretation (and the Ransom to Satan theory which preceded it) was not at all the earliest theory. Blame the lawyer Grotius, as well as Anselm.

    And further, the “reformers”
    (so-called) did NOT reform back far enough, accepting many Catholic
    doctrines and councils as ‘truth’ when in fact, only Jesus’ words are
    Truth, and he is the only one on earth we need to be listening to, not
    men in Latin Robes spouting Greek philosophy and calling it “the
    gospel,” and certainly not modern televangeliars who preach salvation
    can be stolen from God by spouting a simple “jesus prayer,” when Jesus himself said words alone cannot save us.