A Better Atonement: The Last Scapegoat

Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.

This ebook is available now

The most recent major player on the scene of atonement theories is one developed by an anthropologist/literary critic who is still alive: René Girard and the scapegoat theory. But before getting to the atonement, we need a little background on Girard’s thought.

René Girard is a professor emeritus at Stanford University and one of only 40 members, or immortels, of the Académie Française, France’s highest intellectual honor. Girard’s breakthrough, according to James Alison, is this:

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A Better Atonement: Christus Victor

Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.

This ebook is available now

In 1930, a relatively unknown Swedish bishop and theologian revived an understanding of the atonement that had largely been forgotten for 1,000 years. Gustaf Aulén’s book, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Atonement was translated into English the next year, and it’s stayed in print ever since.

The Christus Victor model, Aulén argues, was the predominant theory for the first millennium of the church, and it was held by the majority of the church fathers whom we still revere. Along came Anselm and changed the game — for reasons I’ve written about before and will discuss in an upcoming post — and CV was relegated to history’s rubbish bin. Until Aulén.

Today, CV has had something of a resurgence. ;-) That’s been led by Greg Boyd – who’s personal brand was called, until recently, Christus Victor Ministries — and others.

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A Better Atonement: Union with God

Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.

This ebook is available now

Orthodox Christians do not suffer under the long, long shadow of Augustine. Now, Augustine was arguably the most brilliant theologian of all time, but that not only means that we get the benefits of where he was right. It also means that the parts he got wrong are particularly difficult to get out from under.

In Orthodoxy, for instance, there is no doctrine of Original Sin — at least not as we Westerners were taught it. And while most of us easily reject Augustine’s argument that sin is passed biologically through the sperm of the man (which is why Jesus was immune), we still generally hold to the doctrine. That’s because Original Sin is a compelling idea, it’s an ontological argument, and it’s the hinge on which our dominant view of the atonement swings.

Orthodox Christians also by a different metaphysic than the one that saddles the Western Church. They are less concerned with the substance-essence debates of the early church. Their starting and ending point is 1 John 4:8 — “God is love.”

Father James Bernstein, an Antiochian Orthodox priest in Washington, writes, [Read more...]

A Question about Penal Substitution

from Wikicommons

So, in the wake of all the Love Wins kerfuffle, I received an email from someone who listened to the radio interview I did with Michael Horton.  And the question he asked was this: Are penal substitution and universalism mutually exclusive?

Here’s how we got there.  On the interview, I asked Mike if understanding the atonement via the penal substitutionary theory was essential for a person to be considered a Christian.  He answered that yes, it is.  Other metaphors that explain the atonement are important, and even biblical, he said, but the penal substitutionary understanding is the most widely attested in scripture.  It is necessary and primary.  All other metaphors explaining the atonement take a back seat.

OK, let’s say, hypotehtically, that Mike is right about this.  Let’s say that Jesus did die as a sacrifice, to mitigate God’s wrath against every human being, wrath that was kindled because our sins of disobedience against God.

Couldn’t a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement also be championed by univeralists?  Couldn’t a universalist affirm that Jesus did, indeed, die to take the stain of Original Sin from us, to appease God’s divine sense of judgment, and to open the gates of heaven to all people?

The obvious counter to this is that Paul said that one must believe in her heart and affirm with her lips, “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9-10).  But universalists have to answer for this verse regardless of how they understand the atonement.

So, I put it to you, are penal substitution and universalism mutually exclusive?

The Possibility of Christian Universalism

Well, the issue of Christian universalism didn’t “pop” last year, as I had predicted, but Scot left a comment on another post saying that Rob Bell’s 2011 book will deal with the issue.  That will likely bring it to the fore of the conversation in American evangelicalism.  But I don’t want to wait till then to begin exploring the idea.

As with other theological issues I’ve addressed here — the atonement and same sex marriage, to name a couple — I don’t come in with my mind made up, although I am leaning toward it.  Nor have I spent any time reading or really even thinking about it.  But I do think that it’s important and deserving of ongoing consideration and theological reflection.

What I don’t think is very interesting to pursue is whether some individuals are submitted to eternal torment by God.  If you think that, then you interpret the Bible very differently than I do and we probably disagree on just about everything.  So this won’t really be a forum to debate what Hell is like, or even if there is a Hell or not — that’s ultimately irrelevant to the question, because there could be a Hell to which God sends no one.  Nor is this really about annihilationism as a possible solution to the God-wouldn’t-send-anyone-to-torment-but-God-can’t-remain-just-and-let-everyone-in problem, although we may have to address it.

It seems to me that the big question is, Can you be a universalist and still be a Christian?

This raises all sorts of question about what is a “Christian.”  And I suspect that we’ll also have to get into the metaphysics of “Heaven vs. Hell,” which will probably end up making this whole conversation moot (if, as I suspect, “Heaven” and “Hell” are concepts contingent on metaphysics, which I reject.

I’m sure that some of my readers have thought and read more about this than I have, so I ask you: have I got the opening question right?

Does God Require Blood?

That’s the question that Mark Heim, professor of theology at Andover Newton Theological School asked his class this morning as I sat in. Mark thinks not, and he explicates that idea in his excellent book, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.  Therein, Mark explores Rene Girard‘s brilliant theories of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism in common in human culture.

That reminded me of a great podcast interview at Entitled Opinions in which Robert Harrison of Stanford interviews Girard on these very notions.

A lot of former evangelicals have been looking for a rich and rewarding understanding of the atonement without the violence inherent in the “penal substitutionary” theory in which God demands, or at least requires the blood of his perfect son to assuage his wrath.

It also got me thinking about the contest we ran at Emergent Village back in 2008 looking for alternative metaphors for the atonement.  That contest was judged by Mark Baker, who has also written on the subject, and won by Steve Sherwood.

The atonement isn’t quite the hot topic it was couple of years ago, but it’s still an animating question for most who follow Christ.  It’s good to be reminded that, along with Mark’s book and Scot’s book, there’s yet another good treatment of the subject.

Why It Matters that Jesus REALLY Rose

Last week, I spent time with some new friends in Canada. Most of them were church leaders in the United Church of Canada, the result of a denominational merger in 1925. The United Church is unabashedly liberal in its social stances, for example, affirming same sex unions in 2003. Due to my positions on the atonement and same sex marriage, I’m getting less and less invitations from evangelical groups and more and more invitations from liberal groups.

But, I came away from my time in Canada with one thing on my mind: I don’t like the package deal. Here’s what I mean:

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A Straw Man on the Cross?

Some of my favorite commenters (like Annie) have accused me of “straw man” arguments this past week. I disagree. That would mean that I had overinflated the arguments of my theological opponents and then popped their balloons.  But, in fact, I have used actual blog posts and quotes — their very serious charges of heresy about me — in my responses. Anyone who has actually dealt, face-to-face, with persons like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Justin Taylor, and Kevin DeYoung knows that they are not straw men. I am responding to things they have actually said and written — and things, I imagine, that they actually believe.  (In all honesty, I don’t believe that they treat my arguments as fairly.)

For evidence, just peruse my comment section. Never once does one of them or their posse write that I’ve misunderstood their arguments or “created the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a
superficially similar proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it,
without ever having actually refuted the original position.” No, they usually just quote Bible verses or tell me that I leading people to hell. Or both.

Exhibit A: Kevin DeYoung’s response to my Good Friday post is to quote four Bible verses and then misrepresent my position in his final paragraph.

I imagine that if I had misrepresented the PSA proponents in my attempt to rebut them, they’d let us know.

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Do I Deny Penal Substitution?

No. I simply deny it pride of place.  Here’s what I wrote in October, 2006 about my lunch with John Piper:

One thing that won’t surprise anyone who knows about these things:
John Piper basically equates a penal substitutionary understanding of
the atonement with the gospel. I am unwilling to do that. I don’t
disparage that theory of the atonement (see my recent endorsement on
the back of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Stott’s The Cross of Christ),
but I believe the birth/death/resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the
pivot point of cosmic history. Thus, I do not think that one
theory interpreting that event to be sufficient. Every theory of the
atonement is 1) human, and 2) bound to a context. The penal
substitution — while there are seeds of it in Pauline writings — is
tied to the development of the Western legal mind. Nor am I willing to
condemn the billions of
faithful Christians who have lived and died in the past two millennia
with alternate understandings of the atonement (here see Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor).

In other words, PSA is one theory of the atonement. Beneficial, but not exclusive. Not even first among equals.

Why Jesus Rose

I’m on no quest to reject the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement (PSA). (I merely intend to dethrone it.) :-)   In fact, that’s the understanding of Jesus’ death that was taught to me in my youth group as a kid, and similarly in the college ministry that excommunicated me. But, in all honesty, PSA never sat quite right with me. For one, it didn’t seem to jibe with the chesed of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. And it really didn’t jibe with Jesus’ message. Honestly, I just took my leaders’ words on faith that Jesus perfect life and subsequent death somehow assuaged my own moral guilt.

In my last post, Why Jesus Died, I argued for a different — and more historically robust — understanding of the crucifixion.

Another problem with PSA, it seems to me, is that there’s really no reason for the resurrection. It’s little more than Jesus, “Ta-Da! See, I told you that I was divine!” (Which, by the way, Jesus attests only ambiguously, and primarily in the Gospel of John. Take a deep breath, people. I’m not questioning Jesus’ divinty; I’m just saying that Jesus himself wasn’t particularly adamant about it.) There must be more to Jesus’ resurrection than another proof of his divinity.

So, why a resurrection? More importantly to me, as one who is increasingly shunned by evangelicals and in the same room with liberal mainliners (and Catholics), why a real, historical, physical resurrection?

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