Another Theologian Rethinking Atonement

Another Theologian Rethinking Atonement September 27, 2017

What happened at the cross and after it the resurrection? Metaphors are applied time and time again. At first they blow fresh air on atonement theology and then they wear out. New ones come and go; old ones appear and then fade.

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 12.42.26 PMThomas Andrew Bennett, in his new Labor of God, contends the old metaphors revolving around sacrifice and substitution have faded from potency and we need fresh air: his proposal is “labor of God” as a fresh angle on atonement, air that will breathe new life onto the history of metaphors.

He contends we need to pay attention to lexical adaptation, to metaphoric disclosure, to irreducible metaphoric meaning, and to ground it all in Scripture. (I’d begin with that, but I can’t see it impacts what Bennett says in this book.)

Have we ever considered what happens to our faith when one metaphor begins to rule all other metaphors? When this happens everything in theology — our view of God, our view of Christ, our view of ourselves, our view of the world, our view of the church, our view of the future — collapses under the weight of one metaphor?

I contend this has happened with propitiation, which is a kind of substitutionary atonement but not the whole of it (in spite of strident voices to the contrary). To be a substitute is not the same as being the object of wrath, though the latter is a species of the former. The issue is not which is right but what happens when one metaphor rules: God becomes too much the God of wrath, Christ becomes the object of God’s wrath, we become the escaped objects of wrath, the world is under the wrath of God, the church is for those who have escaped the wrath, and the future becomes the place where wrath is finally over. Of course, that’s simplistic but let’s not doubt such simplicity opens a window onto some theological realities.

Bennett says there’s a better way:

Rather than repeating the language of sacrifice or victory or ransom or influence, pastoral theology would do better to complicate it, bedim it [as in “dim,” being diminished], point out its inconsistencies, and recapture its mysteries.

Why metaphors? Because atonement is too big to reduce:

The complete ontological status of atonement, which is to say “whatever happens between God and humanity in and through the career of Jesus Christ,” is not the sort of thing to which human beings have unmediated epistemic access. It is within the give and take of metaphorical mediation that our words wobble and stretch as they become adequate to the task of grasping the “causal structures of reality.”

An original metaphorical move was made with victory being connected — metaphoric disclosure — to the cross:

Analogously, how is it that characterizing the death of Jesus by Roman torture as a “victory” conforms to anything that really happened in however limited a fashion? What could possibly explain this bizarre juxtaposition?

Victory gets redefined:

With respect to the atonement, Gunton draws our attention to classical concepts like sacrifice and victory. Of course no standard definition of victory or sacrifice could be instantiated in the grisly murder of an innocent itinerant healer/exorcist, but there, we might say, is the rub. If we want to understand real victory, real sacrifice, we must consider the career of Jesus of Nazareth.

What if we explore birth and labor as a metaphor of the atonement and the cross?

Reading the Fourth Gospel’s crucifixion account as a particular kind of birth scene therefore functions as the pretheoretical moment of insight that is minted in language. This crucifixion is different from the others because it is the once-and-for-all moment of spiritual birth.

The aim of the present study, then, will be to understand what we learn about God and crucifixion when we begin to understand it as birthing labor. There will be systematic fallout: fresh notions of atonement will lead to rereckonings of other theological domains. And the street will be two-way: introducing the notion of crucifixion and atonement to maternal labor will suggest a rereckoning of what it is to give birth.


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  • Re: ‘And the street will be two-way: introducing the notion of crucifixion and atonement to maternal labor will suggest a rereckoning of what it is to give birth.’
    I reckon the first realization is that it is the church’s corresponding task to grow up!

  • rick_w55

    The way this review reads, I get the impression that the atonement is such a mystery that no one can really know what it was. If that’s so, then can the theory of this book be any more solidly grounded than any others?

    I’m trying to figure out why this is so difficult. I don’t pretend to understand fully the atonement, and I’m sure that more than one thing was being accomplished. But I don’t think it is naive to draw the inference that since God’s wrath rests on sinful people, and since Jesus bore our sins on the cross, that God’s wrath was directed toward him. Although it was likely more than this, can it be any less? Why is this so objectionable to Christians today?

  • I didn’t see the point of the post or book quotes that there is no wrath involved, or that all is mystery and there is no knowledge. I think the point was that the overuse of that angle on the cross makes the whole story about wrath, which just isn’t accurate or helpful. Lots was going on at the cross and resurrection, and wrath has part in that story, but it isn’t the whole story, or doesn’t tell the whole story by itself.

  • JK

    Define “God’s wrath” and then perhaps the distinctions and objections will be sharpened and conversation advanced.

  • JK

    Birth and labor is an insightful metaphor, now that it’s mentioned it’s obviously one in the text itself but not one I’ve heard before.

    Framing the cross and resurrection as “atonement” is itself to commit the error being corrected here. It’s one metaphor, yes used in scripture, but note well that the events took place not on the day of atonement, but during Passover.

  • rick_w55

    Orgé: wrath, indignation, anger (BAG)

  • JK

    So same emotion and concomitant actions as human wrath? Or is it used as a metaphor for something else in scripture?

  • rick_w55

    Admittedly, my response to this was influenced by the rejection of the notion of God pouring his wrath down on Jesus that’s becoming more popular (witness the reaction against the phrase in the Getty’s song, “the wrath of God was satisfied”). There certainly are people in the church who have limited Jesus’ work on the cross to absorbing the Father’s wrath, but there are also Christians who have taken too much to heart the objection that this makes God look like pagan gods and thus can’t be true. No, the author of the book apparently didn’t dismiss the notion of wrath, but the commentary showed a hint of dismissal (or at least diminishing) in such statements as,”the old metaphors revolving around sacrifice and substitution have faded from potency and we need fresh air.” Is it merely a metaphor that God’s wrath came down on Christ? It’s an obvious inference. Has it “faded from potency”? Maybe, so, but where does the fault lie for that?

    I know it’s the job of theologians to plumb the depths of what we might know of God and his works. I entered that conversation when I was in one of Scot McKnight’s earliest NT survey classes at TEDS. And I’ve learned by experience what a pastor told me once, that the more we learn about God, the more we realize how little we know (or ever will know). But when we fine-tune to the point that we realize we cannot plumb the depths, and so call most every idea put forward a metaphor, then we risk losing what is clearly said. It is no metaphor that God expresses wrath toward sin and sinful people, and it’s no metaphor that Jesus bore our sins on the cross. Maybe this author has something good to add to the conversation. But is it all just metaphors? If we can’t really know anything about the atonement, then we can’t create meaningful metaphors. So let’s keep thinking about it. But let’s not allow what we have to fade from potency; better to revive it.

  • rick_w55

    No, since it is untainted by sin. This attitude (or posture, or whatever you might want to call it) is seen plainly in both OT and NT. It was no metaphor that came down on the heads of God’s enemies, and it won’t be a metaphor that people will face in the final judgment.

  • JK

    Hopefully you can see why Christians might find objectionable eternal conscious torment and other commonly assumed manifestations of God’s wrath at final judgment, and also that you could permit that both orthodoxy and scripture allow for a rejection of this view, particularly through a Christocentric and Christotelic reading.

  • rick_w55

    This takes us a bit afield from the subject of the review, so I won’t argue for eternal conscious torment or against it. I’ll just say that it doesn’t go against a Christocentric reading since Jesus himself talked about it. But I’ll leave you with the last word on this.

  • Ted Johnson

    Coming up with some new approach or theory regarding atonement is something of a cottage industry in Christian theology. I suppose in part this reflects how central atonement is in the New Testament and Christian theology. But at some point it just seems to be going down new rabbit holes to satiate the current mood and sensibilities of current culture. Angry gods who punish…bad. Therapeutic nice gods who hug….good. Sometimes these attempts at new theories say mostly more about us and those who come up with them than anything new about God. IMHO.

  • rick_w55

    But we know what “lamb” means. Jesus was sacrificed for us. I got the impression from the review that it isn’t known what the atonement was, that we are trying to come close to it but without knowing what it was. Did I misunderstand?

  • Ian Thompson

    It might indeed be useful to use metaphors of birth and rebirth.
    They are used in the NT, but some such as Nicodemus take them too literally.
    They are suppose to refer to having new life in the Spirit, Jesus explains.

    Perhaps the crucifixion and resurrection are also supposed to be new life in the Divine Spirit.
    Perhaps just: Jesus AS the Spirit, not just IN the Spirit as with us.

  • Tom Bennett

    I think my argument is more that the metaphors are what give us access to what we can know about atonement. The more metaphors we engage seriously, the more epistemic access we have to atonement. Labor of God tries to show what fresh insights we might garner if we take the labor metaphor seriously.

  • Tom Bennett

    Lol. I actually argue something along those lines in the third or fourth chapter.