cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
It's been a while since I've posted an entry in my "What I Want From an Atonement Theology" series, but I have not forgotten it! I'm still very interested in articulating just what I'd like to see in a theology of atonement, and then perhaps thinking about just how a theology might manage to fill those requirements.

And one of the important--I was tempted to say "most important," but really all of the criteria I specified at the beginning of this project are pretty critically important--requirements which I have for an atonement theology is that it treat the Incarnation not merely as a necessary prerequisite for the Cross, but recognize that "Incarnation is redemption."

You might remember that I actually preached on this in my sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name:
[There is] a tendency we sometime see in some parts of Christianity to view the Incarnation as a mere prerequisite to the Cross, something God had to do in order to accomplish the plan of salvation just as it might be necessary for a high school student to take Algebra I before she can take Algebra II. Roger Olson speaks of it as a “rescue mission”: “its only purpose being to get God the Son onto the cross to change God’s attitude toward us from wrath to love. This,” Olson says, “does not take the truth of the incarnation seriously enough.”
I contrasted this with a Franciscan understanding of the Incarnation as articulated by Fr. Richard Rohr:
For Francis and the early Franciscans, "incarnation was already redemption," and the feast of Christmas said that God was saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of his Son in our midst. If that were true, then all questions of inherent dignity, worthiness, and belovedness were resolved once and forever—and for everything that was human, material, physical, and in the whole of creation. That's why Francis liked animals and nature, praising the sun, moon, and stars, like some New Ager from California. It was all good and chosen and beautiful if God came among us "as Emmanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
What are the implications of this understanding of the Incarnation as "already redemption" on how we view the Atonement? What happens when we view the Cross through the lens of the Incarnation instead of vice versa?

Jesus' death was an inevitable consequence of the Christ becoming human, of sharing our mortal nature. Whether it was at 33 years old on the Cross, or as an elderly person on a deathbed, Jesus was always going to die. That's part and parcel of being human, an inescapable result of the kenotic process described in the early Christian hymn quoted by St. Paul in his letter to the Phillipians:
Christ, though in the image of God,
didn't deem equality with God
something to be clung to--
but instead became completely empty
and took on the image of oppressed humankind:
born into the human condition,
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled--
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! (2:6-8, The Inclusive Bible)
By emptying Christself and becoming human, Christ doomed Christself to death. So it seems to me that the question of the Cross is: in what ways, if any, does Jesus' violent death on a cross accomplish something that a death in bed from natural causes at age 90 would not have? I think the hymn above implies an answer in its phrase "death, even death on a cross!" Crucifixion is, in a sense, the sine qua non of deaths, dramatically underscoring what it means to be mortal, to be subject to suffering and ultimately to death. Jesus' experience on the Cross was what every human being faces in death, only more so. "Jesus' cry from the cross—'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'—shows that in the crucifixion, God experienced the most human of all feelings: the absence of God. In so doing, God bridged the gap that sin had caused between us," writes Tony Jones, explicating the view of the atonement held by theologian Jürgen Moltman.

In The Crucified God, Moltman writes--quoted by Tony Jones here--that it is on the Cross that Christ takes upon Christself "the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and godforsaken can experience communion" with the Christ. That's the sort of insight that I think a theology of the atonement has to take into account if it is to properly understand the Cross in light of the Incarnation, rather than simply understanding the Incarnation in light of the Cross, as has been lamentably more common within Western Christianity.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City during the Celebration of Christmas Lessons and Carols on Jan. 1, 2012 C.E.

Genesis 3:1-15
Isaiah 40:1-11
Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

So here we are, the Eight Day of our voyage through the (relatively short) season of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Name. “When the eight day arrived for the child’s circumcision, [the child] was named Jesus.” This, the first shedding of Jesus’ blood, stands of course as a prefiguring of the Cross. It also stands as a powerful testimony to the truth of the Incarnation, that God became fully human, suffering out of love all the pains and frailties that we suffer out of sin.

We know that we are subject to injury, to pain, to illness, to temptation, and ultimately to death because of sin, because of our own turning away from God’s Love. The account of the Fall found in the Book of Genesis expresses this important truth in figurative terms. Yet Jesus was without the stain of that sin, and still Jesus’ blood was able to be shed, first at the circumcision and ultimately at the crucifixion.

Just as “in the free, overflowing rapture of [God’s] love, God makes a creation that is other than [God]self” (Jürgen Moltmann) in the Genesis accounts, in the Incarnation our loving God empties Godself, taking the form of a slave.

Think of the sacrifice! The omnipresent Christ becoming limited to a single human body in a single place; the omniscient Christ needing to learn and grow as human children do; the omnipotent Christ made weak and helpless. And then, on the eighth day, well, you know.

Fiction writers from Anne Rice in Out of Egypt to Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ have written novels trying to imagine what that sort of experience for the young Christ would have been like as Christ “grew in size and strength” (Invlusive Bible) and “increased in wisdom and in years” (NRSV), as two different translations of Luke 2:40 put it. There is no definitive answer to that question, of course, but we should not be surprised that so many authors’ pens have been inspired by the powerfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, confronting and conquering the worst of our human natures-- fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and perhaps, as in The Last Temptation, even lust--out of love rather than out of sin.

It’s true that here in the western Church we are more likely to talk about Jesus having two natures, one human and one divine, united in one person--what’s called the Definition of Chalcedon--while our siblings-in-Christ in Eastern Orthodoxy are more likely to speak of the humanity and divinity united in a single nature. But the underlying core doctrine--that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine--represents a central orthodoxy for the entire Church catholic in all her branches: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant alike.

But . . . so what? Hopefully I am my own harshest critic, but I can just imagine a hypothetical parishioner sitting in their pew, going, “Well, it was fun, reading lessons and and singing Christmas carols, but then we had to let the theology geek get up and talk.” Well, that hopefully fictional parishioner would be in good company: no less a personage than the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther himself once wrote: “What is it to me that Christ had two natures?” He did not, of course, mean that the doctrine was altogether unimportant, but his comments represent a tendency we sometime see in some parts of Christianity to view the Incarnation as a mere prerequisite to the Cross, something God had to do in order to accomplish the plan of salvation just as it might be necessary for a high school student to take Algebra I before she can take Algebra II. Roger Olson speaks of it as a “rescue mission”: “its only purpose being to get God the Son onto the cross to change God’s attitude toward us from wrath to love. This,” Olson says, “does not take the truth of the incarnation seriously enough.”

Richard Rohr writes of the Incarnation as “God [. . .] saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of [God’s] Son in our midst. [. . . A]ll questions of inherent dignity, worthiness, and belovedness were resolved once and forever—and for everything that was human, material, physical, and in the whole of creation.” Rohr reminds us that for St. Francis, St. Clare, and the community they led at Asissi, “incarnation was already redemption.”

Earlier I mentioned the Definition of Chalcedon, the formula we in the western Church use to grasp as best as we are able the holy mystery which is Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity. The full text of the definition as composed at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 of the Common Era can be found on page 864 of your Prayer Book, albeit in incredibly small type, but part of that definition--and I’m tweaking the translation a bit here--states that Jesus is “truly God and truly human, of a rational soul and body, of one being with the One whom Jesus called 'Abba' according to the divinity of Christ, and of one being with us according to Christ’s humanity.”

Let’s say that again: by virtue of Jesus’ humanity, we are one in being with Christ. We share Christ’s essence, Christ’s substance, Christ’s being. Talk about a weighty message!

So when Mary and Joseph bring their infant child to be presented at the temple, in a sense it is all of humanity which is being presented before God. When that infant’s blood is shed according to the covenant made with Sarah and Abraham, all of humanity is bound in a New Covenant. And when that child is given the name Jesus--meaning “the LORD brings salvation”--that becomes our name, our promise, our truth.

Amen.
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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

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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