August 28, 2011

This series has attempted to look at the event of crucifixion of Jesus and the fact that it was human beings who killed Him. The question of how can the death of Jesus be, if at all, a divinely foreordained event has been the main issue here.  I have presented a perspective of New Testament theology and critiqued some of the atonement theories that have emerged in the history of Christian thought, especially the deterministic model of Augustinian/Calvinistic theology.

As I conclude I want to look at some theological reflections on the topic with a view of coming to a fuller understanding of the atonement.

A series of articles in two recent issues of Interpretation (1998 and 1999) examined the atonement from a variety of biblical and theological perspectives. Charles Cousar, William Placher and Nancy Duff in separate articles raise the question whether the church’s proclamation of the atonement glorifies violence and suffering. In three different ways they all affirm our need of the atonement. Cousar argues that Paul not only does not glorify suffering but also urges his churches to refrain from violence. Paul himself as well as some of the people to whom he wrote were already experiencing suffering in their service of the gospel. Suffering is a matter of course for a community that embodies the new creation, which continues to groan along with the rest of creation. Paul’s theology of the cross is the basis of a power that accomplishes its purpose in weakness rather than domination and control.

William Placher asks whether women and other oppressed groups have been called too often by the Christian faith to endure suffering. Does vicarious suffering make moral sense? His answer is that it would depend on whether the suffering perpetuates injustice, or the acceptance of suffering serves the cause of justice, peace and liberation. In this regard, Christ’s suffering is not that of a scapegoat dragged to sacrifice against its will but a volunteer in the battle against evil. Placher then responds to the question as to whether the atonement fosters the image of a vindictive God by saying that God’s love becomes painful wrath, "but in Christ God takes that wrath on God’s own self."

Nancy Duff looks at the Reformed doctrine of the atonement from a feminist perspective. She observes that debate over the atonement now marks one of the most heated conflicts in contemporary theology. The question for her is whether the feminist critique of the atonement will receive a hearing in Reformed circles. She does not advocate rejection of the doctrine but reexamination of its salvific character in response to the feminist charge that the image of cosmic child abuse portrayed in the willingness of God the Father to sacrifice the Son glorifies suffering and condones abuse. Her answer is to appeal to Christ’s prophetic office which must be rooted in the incarnation. The cross of Christ, who is fully divine and fully human, is not something that God required of or did to Jesus, but something that God did for us. By the same token, an abused wife is not the incarnate God suffering on behalf of others. Christ on the cross represents her and reveals God’s presence with her. Duff understands the cross to stand for God’s unconditional love. However, that does not mean permissiveness and tolerance of evil. "Humanity not only needs to be forgiven for guilt incurred through sin, but freed from the power of sin which holds the human will captive and causes some people to be victimized at the hands of others."

Baillie rightly argues against the facile liberalism of nineteenth-century Protestantism that minimized the significance of the biblical understanding of the depth of human sinfulness and the vicarious suffering of the Son of God.

When we speak of God’s free love toward us, continuing unchanged through all our sin, and eternally ready to forgive us, there is always the danger that this should be taken to mean that God is willing to pass lightly over our sins because they do not matter much to Him; that it is all a matter of easy routine, about which we need not be greatly concerned and need not greatly wonder. . . . It is as if God were to be regarded as indulgent and good-natured, making as little as possible of our misdeeds, glossing over our delinquencies. . . . Is God’s love for sinners simply ‘kindly judgment’? Nay, it is ‘a consuming fire’… God must be inexorable towards our sins; not because He is just, but because He is loving; not in spite of His love, but because of His love.

Although in the history of the church satisfaction theories of the atonement, penal or otherwise, have dominated Christian theology, other voices have raised objections against them. Peter Abelard and J. McLeod Campbell are but two examples. A century and a half ago Campbell argued against the penal substitution theory at the cost of losing his standing as a Presbyterian minister in Scotland. Campbell said, "[W]hile Christ suffered for our sins as an atoning sacrifice, what he suffered was not—because from its nature it could not be—punishment." Rather, Christ’s sufferings are rooted in "Divine Holiness and Divine Love."

Moltmann says:

[I]n Christ's God-forsakenness, God goes out of himself, forsakes his heaven and is in Christ himself, is there, present, in order to become the God and Father of the forsaken. . . . Christ's cross stands between all the countless crosses which line the paths of the powerful and the violent, from Spartacus to the concentration camps and to the people who have died of hunger or who have "disappeared" in Latin America.

Yet because of the influence of Greek philosophy, Christian thought over the centuries has been dominated by a concept of God who is impassible, immovable and self-sufficient.

Right down to the present day, the apathy axiom has left a deeper impress on the fundamental concepts of the doctrine of God than has the history of Christ's passion. . . . The ability to identify God with Christ's passion dwindles in proportion to the importance that is given to the apathy axiom in the doctrine of God.

It is perhaps for this reason that the pervasive view of the atonement in Western Christianity has been that the death of Jesus had been foreordained by God’s demand of justice. But if one starts with the biblical understanding of a passionately loving and therefore vulnerable God, the ground upon which the satisfaction theories of the atonement have stood will have been shaken.

Long before Christ’s death, God has suffered, wept and agonized over the sinfulness of the human race. In that sense Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The cross of Christ bares the heart of God, a heart full of love that is broken and weeping.

God does not shrink back from giving himself to humankind completely and unreservedly, regardless of the risks. In the words of Frances M. Young,

God accepted the terrible situation, demonstrating that he takes responsibility for evil in his universe, that he recognizes the seriousness of evil, its destructive effect, its opposition to his purposes; that it cannot be ignored, but must be challenged and removed; that it is costly to forgive; that he suffers because his universe is subject to evil and sin.

Geoffrey Wainwright places this understanding of the atonement in the context of contemporary hermeneutic:

[T]he sharing by Christians in the priestly office of Christ requires contemporary exercise: the question of peace and reconciliation. As those who, in Christ, know themselves to be part of a world that has been "reconciled to God by the death of his Son" (Rom. 5:10f.; cf. 2 Cor. 5:18f.), Christians have been given a "ministry of reconciliation." . . . The case could be no more dramatic than in Northern Ireland, where there is a chance that water, bread, and wine could prove themselves more potent symbols than sashes, berets, and flags, and that hands lifted in prayer or laid on heads in forgiveness and healing could turn out closer to reality than hands that plant bombs or squeeze triggers.

The satisfaction theories of the atonement are inadequate to express the richness of divine love that suffers because they arise out of the faulty assumption that God’s primary attribute is justice and that God must vindicate himself and his moral government and demand payment for a moral debt. On the other hand, understanding the death of Christ as an expression of God’s endeavor to reconcile the world to himself, along the lines of the moral influence theory, is not only consistent with biblical theology but is also most congenial to Wesleyan thought.

I must admit that my expertise is not in Wesley studies. I will therefore depend on the insights of others for the few remarks I will make about Wesley’s understanding of the atonement. First, there seems to be a consensus that Wesley did not have a distinctive doctrine of atonement. The following is Dunning’s assessment of Wesley’s position:

The absence of a systematic treatise by Wesley on the Atonement is a serious weakness and creates a profound tension, since it results in his apparently adopting or at least using the formulations of some form of the satisfaction theory. He was constantly having to fight against its implications. Had he developed a logical analysis of his own, he might have become aware that this view did not support, in fact was antithetical to his major theological commitments.

Secondly, in spite of the fact that Wesley depended on some form of the satisfaction theory, he seems to have been open to a variety of formulations. For example, Maddox finds "more resonance with Abelard’s central theme in Wesley’s reflections on the Atonement than is often admitted." Maddox summarizes Wesley’s understanding as "a Penalty Satisfaction explanation of the Atonement which has a Moral Influence purpose, and a Ransom effect!"

Third, Lindstrom and Maddox see a link between the atonement and sanctification in Wesley’s thought. Lindstrom says that sanctification is indirectly related to atonement, since sanctification is primarily the consequence of Christ’s royal office. Maddox sees the relation of the atonement to sanctification when he says, "If we will respond to this pardoning love of God and allow God’s Presence deeper access to our lives, then we will be liberated from our captivity to sin and the process of our transformation into the fullness that God has always intended for us can begin."

I began this series with the question as to whether the death of Jesus was historically contingent or divinely foreordained. It seems to me that the answer is that the death of Jesus was brought about through human decisions and therefore it is historically contingent. Survey of material from and about the historical Jesus indicates that social, political and religious forces were at work to bring Jesus to his violent death. At the same time, however, Jesus was not simply the victim of circumstances. At some point in his life he began to see that his message and what he represented would probably result in a violent death and that this was part of the coming of the kingdom of God. His words at the Last Supper indicate that he understood his own death in the Passover imagery of liberation for captives from the old order.

The various New Testament writings interpret the death of Jesus as atonement, understood as God’s reconciling love toward humanity. It is God who takes the initiative to act redemptively through the death of Jesus. I conclude that the death of Jesus was not divinely foreordained as penal satisfaction but the result of God’s coming into human history vulnerably through the incarnation.

In the context of contemporary theology with its concern for the oppressed and the spiral of abuse and violence, the least viable formulation of the atonement would be penal substitution. The moral influence theory with its emphasis on the suffering love of God should at least be given a renewed hearing, but without underestimating the power and seriousness of sin. Such an articulation of the atonement is a more faithful rendering of the New Testament understanding of the death of Jesus than satisfaction theories. It is also more congenial to the central commitments of Wesleyan theology than the other classical theories.