cjbanning: (Symposium)
A theology of the Atonement must, like any other theological endeavor, have as its starting place Who Christ Is, firmly rooted both in the hypostatic union and in the Holy Trinity as perichoretic dialectic. Without a firm appreciation of the full humanity and full divinity of the One who is God's Eternally Begotten, consubstantial with God the Parent in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the full meaning and power of the Cross simply cannot be hoped to be grasped: " the Cross was required for the world's redemption [. . .] because of the transcendence of the very bounds of sense which the Cross represents: the death of the immortal, ever-living God; the helplessness of the omnipotent Ruler of the Universe while undergoing cruel torture; the questioning cry from the omniscient Overseer" (as I put it in my 2010 post, On Atonement).

Here's Tony Jones:
Am I just too evangelical, looking as I am for cosmic import and redemption in the death of at Galilean peasant two millennia ago?

I think not.

If Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity — which I believe he was — then his crucifixion matters. And it matters more than as an example of someone who demonstrated “a Jesus-like revolutionary resistance in relation to a culture of unprecedented social inequality—and of unprecedented and appalling economic, racial, military, penal, environmental, and psychological violence.” (Oh, wait, that quote was about us, not Jesus.)

Atonement theologies insufficiently rooted in these mysteries end up subject to what I think of as the "Life of Brian problem." I first proposed this thought experiment--based of course on Monty Python's 1979 comedy film The Life of Brian in which a man named Brian lives a life strangely parallel to that of Jesus Christ--while I was in undergrad reading René Girard's The Scapegoat. Why is Jesus' death on a cross salvific when Brian's is not?

I never really figured out in undergrad whether Girard's theology held an answer to the Life of Brian problem or not. But Tony Jones' description seems to indicate that it does--and that that answer is located precisely in the hypostatic union: "the scapegoat is not one us us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself [sic] enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices"--although I still don't claim to understand how exactly it all works. In particular, the explanation seems to conflate Jesus' divinity with Jesus' sinlessness; Wikipedia states that "the difference [. . .] is that [Jesus] was resurrected from the dead and shown to be innocent"--is the only difference between Jesus and Brian that Brian committed some (presumably fairly minor) sin? (Or is crucifixion considered to be in some way some sort of reasonable response to the mere stain of original sin?) I don't get it--which ultimately says more about me than Girard, perhaps.

One way for non-Trinitarians and other holders of unorthodox Christologies to escape the Life of Brian problem is to ground the uniqueness of the Cross of Jesus in Christ's sinlessness or in a sort of quasi-divinity rather than in full, actual divinity. But for an orthodox Trinitarian, I think any answer to the question "Why is the Cross of Jesus special?" other than "Because Jesus is the Begotten One of God, consubstantial with God the Parent in the unity of the Holy Spirit" is indicative of an atonement theory which is somehow deficient. It might perhaps provide us with a true and important piece of the puzzle, but it will also be lacking in some major way.

One example of this which seems particularly clear for me is the "moral exemplar" theory. Here's Tony's description:
So God sent his [sic] son, Jesus, as the perfect example of a moral life. Jesus’ teachings and his healing miracles form the core of this message, and his death is as a martyr for this cause: the crucifixion both calls attention to Jesus’ life and message, and it is an act of self-sacrifice, one of the highest virtues of the moral life.
I think Tony's way of phrasing here is telling: "God sent his son." Now, this is a perfectly orthodox way of phrasing the relationship between Jesus and the one Jesus called Abba--it had better be, after all, since it's the main way of phrasing it used by the Christian Scriptures themselves. And if Tony is right that this "view of the atonement was the first post-biblical view articulated in the very earliest, post-Apostolic church" then I suppose we shouldn't be surprised it doesn't depend on an elaborate, sophisticated account of the Trinity which stresses Jesus' consubstantiality with God the Parent. But I do think that ultimately proves to be a weakness. While the moral exemplar theory is certainly true so far as it goes, it fails to adequately capture the fullness of the Atonement precisely because it fails to capture the fullness of Who Jesus Is. You can replace "his son" with "a prophet" or "an angel" or whatever and the sense of Tony's description isn't really changed.

Perhaps strangely, I think the most popular types of atonement theology--substitutionary theories, which include both the classic "ransom" view and the Reformed view of "penal substitution"--also fall prey to this criticism (as well as other logical criticisms we'll examine in future posts). As far as I can see, there is nothing preventing a Unitarian or quasi-Arian from holding a substitutionary account of the atonement; indeed, Jehovah's Witnesses typically advocate a version of the ransom theory. (And there is no contradiction I can see between the quasi-Arian understanding of Jesus as angel with penal substitution.) This indicates that these views, too, are ultimately lacking something crucial.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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