We are not social atoms. Churches must stop pretending we are.

We are not social atoms. Churches must stop pretending we are. June 26, 2017

Atkinson, Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Family

You could say that the modern world reduced things to atoms, and when it came to social life, especially politics, the modern world reduced everything to individuals. For liberals, a man’s identity and his freedom were sacrosanct, and social institutions had to justify themselves to him.

You could go on to say that the post-modern world has split the atom. And finding that individuals are not the stable things modern people thought they were, kings and men are working hard to hold things together. But the Bible, like Aristotle, never supposes that people are social atoms. Aristotle famously said that people are social animals, meaning that they naturally belong to social bodies. Joseph Atkinson in Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Family tells us about a recent discovery of something similar that some biblical scholars have termed Corporate Personality.

IMG_2603Any modern reader of the Bible should be familiar with the Bible’s tendency to place people “in” other people. The preposition “in” identifies our location, but another person is the location we are set in. We are in Adam, or in Christ, or in Abraham, and so forth. Most of us think this is just a curious and empty anachronism. What really matters is what is in us, as in Jesus lives in my heart, or sin lives in me.

Modern people think of themselves as being born into a null-space, a boundless and empty place where people make their choices. We are uncommitted until we choose to be. This is nonsense–as postmodernity helps us to see. But those premodern Semites had enough commonsense to know people are already somewhere before they come to know where they are. Your self, you could say, is derived from this prior location.

Atkinson discusses Corporate Personality as a separate subject in chapter six of his book. But it is assumed and alluded to in the chapters that lead up to it. Here are a few quotations from his book to give you a feel for it.

On examination, there appears to be active in Hebrew thought a construct which is foundational to and permeates the Israelite understanding of the family. Like many underlying factors, it is not obvious and, perhaps because it is not obvious, it is all the more powerful. In any consideration of the OT understanding of the family, the sense of an “organic” dimension begins to emerge. There is a vital organic link between generations; the common ancestor-father provides the very identity for the later generations of the tribe. …both blessings and curses are visited on the whole family because of the father’s actions. (p.162)

Later, quoting H. Wheeler Robinson, Atkinson writes:

The group possesses a consciousness which is distributed amongst its individual members. (p.164)

And then he refers to W. C. Kaiser:

Here, one individual “often embodies the whole group.” (p.165)

When it came to a Biblical theology of covenants the Reformed have given the church a great deal. We’ve shown that covenants hold the Bible together in contradistinction to those people who have claimed the Bible is just a hodgepodge of events held together by the accidents of history and the interests of a priestly class. But even so, it seems to me that the modern outlook has tinctured our thinking and even the Reformed tend to think of people as social atoms held together by unmediated will–either God’s or ours.

PrintFor the Semites there was a third thing, that aspect of human nature that binds us to other people, and in their case, something we’re calling Corporate Personality. This should strike us like a smack on the forehead accompanied by, “Of course!” It fills in so much–not only the empty spaces in our understanding of the Bible, but also much of what it missing in our churches.

Atkinson shows us what it means for our doctrines of creation and salvation in chapters entitled: Family as Carrier of the Covenant, Family as Image of the Covenant, and The Corporate Dimension of Baptism in the New Testament.

To be continued.

Here’s something else for you to enjoy. Wipf and Stock, the publisher of my book, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

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