Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Why of Jesus

smijer has a long and interesting post today on the topic of Penal Substitution (which I tend to refer to as Substitutionary Atonement). It's a topic that's been on my "to-blog" list for almost as long as I've had this blog. What I'm writing now isn't that idealized/imagined blog post, but a start.

Growing up an Episcopalian, the notion that "Jesus died for our sins and paid the price to ransom us from hell" was not really the dominant interpretation I got from my church community as a child or as a teen. That's despite the lines in the Nicene and Apostle's creeds that suggest as much, although not as baldly.

But that same message was all around me. I grew up in a rural pocket of Southeastern PA that was culturally akin to the Bible Belt, with a strong fundamentalist and Evangelical presence. So starting in about 6th or 7th grade and through my teen-age years I started coming across tracts setting forth this message and friends for whom it was their central understanding of who Jesus was and what his mission was.

It never made sense to me. In a way that I could not even articulate, it struck me as irrational and even monstrous. Just the requirement that all you had to do -- and the only thing you could do -- to avoid eternal punishment was to make a statement that you believed that Jesus died for your sins seemed absurd on its face and more absurd the more I tried to contemplate and understand it.

The priest who was probably most influential in my religious upbringing -- a wonderful man who arrived at our church when I was about 11 and retired when I was about 16 or 17 -- also didn't think much of it. Not long after he arrived in our town, he asked me about the prevalence of "Jesus Saves" messages all over; while I cannot recall his exact words, it was very clear from the way he asked that he was quite dismissive of that approach. And this was not any kind of closeted atheist, either; he was deeply devout, even for a priest, and it was natural and authentic for him to refer to Jesus, whether in the context of his life on earth or in the context of the eternal, as "Our Lord."

At the same time, however, the fundamental idea of Substitutionary Atonement (although not the term -- in truth, that label is less than a year old in my consciousness) has had a near-obsessive hold on my imagination for all my life -- a consequence of how completely monstrous a concept I felt (and feel) that it was and is. Every once in a while I find myself in the religious section of the bookstore and gazing at new (Evangelical) titles in the subject of basic Christian theology, and I often pick up one or another and quickly comb through for evidence (which I almost always find) that it's serving the same old Substitutionary Atonement wine in a new bottle. When I poke around on the web for church websites (something I do occasionally just as a matter of curiosity, or perhaps because I'm following a link from somewhere else), I'll almost always look first at the "What We Believe" section (if there is one) and then assess how much it does or doesn't follow the SA model. And when I read The First Paul, by Crossan & Borg, last year, it was a revelation to me to learn that the whole notion of Substitutionary Atonement could largely be traced to Anselm, nearly a millennium after the Crucifixion.

Perhaps that's why reading Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus -- the book I'm currently on -- has been such an absolute delight. It's the first work I've seen by an Evangelical that offers a real alternative to that model. (And from some Amazon reviews I've been reading lately, it appears his newest book, A New Kind of Christianity, may actually reject the Subtitutionary Atonement model outright, although I can't yet say that with any first-hand knowledge.)

Some years ago I heard (second-hand) that Garrison Keillor, in an amusing discourse about the New York subway system, explained why the only preachers on the trains were fundamentalists: You just don't have time for a complex message, so the simple one -- "Jesus died for your sins! Give thanks to God!" or something like that -- wins out.

As I've been reintroducing myself to Christianity through its Progressive strains in the Mainline church, I've thought back to my childhood. I'm glad that my Episcopal upbringing offered an alternative to the fundamentalism in the community around me. I just wish, sometimes, that it had offered an equally succinct and clear statement of that alternative.


  1. Thanks for the link... I Have heard of McLaren before but never read anything of his. It sounds like he may have some sympathy with the "salvific message" theory I mentioned toward the end of my post.

    It also, from the editorial reviews, resonates with a lecture I listened to on the way to work this morning from NT Wright given to Asbury Theological Seminary - which advocates bringing the Kingdom to the here and now (and, unfortunately, in my view - doing it politically). I think that Wright (and maybe McLaren) understand Jesus better than many. I'm just not sure that a) it is possible to know the real, historical person of Jesus, or b) it is necessarily a good thing to adopt all aspects of the message attributed to him in the Gospels.

    Wright is largely at odds with Crossan, but quotes him favorably in his lecture. I'll paraphrase: if you read Paul first, you won't understand Jesus. If you read the Gospels first, you'll understand Paul differently.

    He put it another way as well: some people read Paul and think it is the Gospel, and read the Gospels, and think they are collections of trivia that lead up to the "real" Gospel of the crucifixion (when the "real" Gospel includes everything about the life and teachings of Jesus).

    I don't know.

  2. Interesting. I've been hearing of Wright for some time, but haven't read/heard anything by him yet. I'm sort of interested in his book on Paul, having read the Borg/Crossan book on Paul, and also in the book he cowrote with Borg in which the two engage in a dialogue. Just yesterday I was looking around for something that would give me Wright on a postage stamp, as it were. Didn't find it.

    McLaren is very much about The Kingdom of Heaven/God being here and now. I'm not sure he's really calling for it to be brought about only, or even primarily, by political means (Borg comes close to that in The Heart of Christianity), although McLaren did cause some fluttering in the dovecotes of the Evangelical church when he endorsed Obama.

    IMHO, The Secret Message of Jesus seems likely to be a good introduction/summation of McLaren, if one is looking for that. (Of course, it's so far the only thing of his I've read.)

    As for the historical vs. non-historical Jesus...that might be a whole 'nother post sometime...

    Thanks for visiting!

  3. That contingent of American Christianity that believe in SA believe it so ardently that they truly believe that any alternative to SA is SAtanic - that is, virulently anti-Christian, anti-Christ, anti-God. Thanks for this "start," DSD.

    smijer, it does, of course, only make sense to cautiously let Paul inform one's reading of the canonical Gospels since Paul wrote first and was PART of the mix that the early readers of the canonical Gospels would have had some degree of familiarity with.

    The only way we CAN understand the Gospels is by understanding the matrix of meaning into which the new documents were injected. That said, though, one need not assume that the anonymous Gospel writers and the churches that accepted them agreed with Paul or pseudo-Paul. Only that you aren't going to understand any historic Jesus the least bit more by reading the Gospels than by reading Paul. Each book presents its own second-or-third-hand perspective on a Jesus the writer never met. And the most "complete" gospel narrative is only a telegraphed form of the message that, somewhere out there, there is a message to be found with a Jesus- and/or Christ-label on it.

    Certainly Mark is a death narrative not a life narrative. Just look at the volume of verbiage devoted to events in the life compared to the end-narrative - from arrest to the empty tomb sans resurrected Christ. Mark's only interested in giving us the equivalent of chapter headings to propel us down the path of inevitability to the only event that "mattered."

    I alternately love and grind my teeth at NT Wright. Loved Crossan and Borg's "First Paul" but only know McLaren third-hand, though I have "A Generous Or+hodoxy" on my shelf waiting on me and have fantasized about having the time to read SMJ and NKC.

    Great topic, DSD, given the country and theological times we live in...

  4. DSD, NT Wright can be rather quickly sampled via YouTube videos. There's a raft of them out there but are titled according to topic.

  5. Paul - for whatever it's worth... SMJ (it took me a moment to decode the abbreviation!) is actually a quick read -- it's very much an "inspirational" book and has the earnest rhetoric that is characteristic of so much Evangelical writing. (Dowd's Thank God for Evolution is a bit like that, too.) I picked mine up at Half Price Books (founded by a UU!) for about 8 bucks.

  6. Paul, what you said of Mark reminds me of what Mark Goodacre said in his extended podcast on the topic: that Mark was written to make sense of a crucified Messiah to a world that would have had as hard a time accepting that notion as the contingent of Christians you mentioned above have of accepting any non SA theory of atonement.

  7. It sounds to me as though you are conflating what are actually several different theories of the atonement. Penal substitution and substitutionary atonement are not exactly the same thing. Substitutionary atonement supposes that Christ pays a debt of obligation to God on our behalf in order to receive our forgiveness, while penal substitution supposes that Christ receives punishment from God on our behalf in penalty for our sin. Both differ from the ransom theory of atonement, which supposes that Christ pays a ransom to Satan on our behalf to retrieve us from Satan's domination. (It is the ransom theory that CS Lewis relies on in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe".) Unitarian Christians typically affirm yet another theory, the moral influence theory of atonement, in which Christ leads us to righteousness not by standing vicariously in our place against God or Satan, but by offering us his own teaching and example.

  8. Oops, I forgot to mention yet another theory, Christus Victor, which focuses more on the Resurrection than the Crucifixion, and posits that it is Christ's triumph over death that redeems us out of our enslavement to mortal failings and the "principalities and powers" of material existence.

  9. fausto, I think anyone can be forgiven for conflating SA with PST - stripped of the commercial metaphor, the "debt paid" is essentially same as the "punishment endured". In the post DSD links of mine on the subject, I pointed out that there is a great deal of overlap between PST and the related Satisfaction and general "substitution" theories, and that all such constructions suffer similar weaknesses.

    I did mention the moral influence theory. I left out the Ransom theory on purpose (it just lacks currency). I also mentioned the Classic theory, which is very similar to Christus Victor (virtually identical on your description of CV).

    I also left out the socinian viewpoint that God's forgiveness is absolute and need not be mediated by crucifixion at all - even through its role in moral influence - nor through a salvific message. Because it's pretty radical and like the Ransom theory, lacks currency.

  10. @fausto... I had a feeling I might be treading into some fine-grained definitional problems there. (Memo to self: add the "I'm not a church scholar..." category to this post.) I recall that Newsweek (or was it Time?) a few years ago did a rundown of all the differing atonement theories. I don't think I saved that issue.

    That said...While I'm not going to dismiss those differences as "it's all the same thing," I do submit that morally and philosophically they broadly suffer from at least similar problems.

    BTW, in using the word "ransom" I was not intending to allude literally to the "paying ransom to Satan" notion -- I think the word came out of my recollection of an old folk/gospel song (to the tune of Blowin' in the Wind) and the line therein, "he paid the ransom for me."

    @smijer: "Ransom... lacks currency." heh. (And thank you for the defense of this non-scholar...)

  11. It's funny that your thought on hearing "ransom" was a folk/gospel song. I thought about including an aside about the Ransom theory (which I've always understood to mean that Jesus was *offered* as a ransom, but the devil was fooled since he didn't anticipate the resurrection) - if I had done so, I would have mentioned that its imagery is often sometimes found in circles that accept a PST model. When *I* hear the word, the first thing that some to my mind is "Tell Me the Story of Jesus", which is a wonderful old hymn. It says "Stay, let me weep while you whisper, Love paid the ransom for me." I have a soft spot for old hymns.


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