Friday, October 3, 2008

Satisfaction or Cleansing? Response to John Roop

In a comment, Pastor John Roop challenges me on my post, “Speaking of Parables…”. My response is below:

John, thanks for visiting and commenting. With all due respect, however, I wonder how much this retold parable, while not presenting a perfect analogy, really is a caricature, and I think your comment illustrates a problem that Western culture has been living with for at least the last millenium. We immediately identify the idea of sacrifice with Anselmian concepts, and then we read these concepts into the Bible. Consider, for example, the word "atonement". Originally, when the word was coined, apparently by Wycliffe, it really did simply mean "at-one-ment": reconciliation, union, communion. But when we hear it, or read it, we generally think, "make satisfaction" or "make reparation" or something similar. However, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is not propitiatory in that sense, it is not about “making satisfaction,”; it is expiatory when it comes to sin: the application of the blood is to REMOVE or "cover" the sin, not to make satisfaction for it. “Blessed is he whose sin is forgiven, whose iniquity is covered.” Consider also the fact that “Yom Kippur” literally means “day of covering” or “day of wiping away”. What God is interested in, first and foremost, is healing (“saving”) humanity, restoring human persons to communion with the Divine Community that is the Holy Trinity. Sin prevents that, not because God “cannot stand to be in the presence of sin,” but because sin, and sinful persons, cannot survive being in the presence of God. “No one shall see my face and live.”

We also, as your comment illustrates, reflexively connect "substitutionary" with "penal" or "satisfaction". Now, there is no question that Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. However, beyond defeating sin, death, and Satan, to what end? Or, to put it another way, in what sense is Christ’s death a sacrifice which fulfills the sacrifices of the Old Testament? Is this propitiation in the Anselmian sense? Or is it expiation, reconciliation? "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." “Behold the Lamb of God who TAKES AWAY the sins of the world.”

Of course, this is far from a complete analysis, and the parable I quote is simply a preface to a long paper in which the author offers his own theory, which seems to be a recapitulation of Ireneus’ work. I think the bottom line is that Anselm, first, missed the point in critiquing what had come before him, in that “justice” is really not the issue. Of course the devil has no rights! However, because of the fall, Satan was de facto the dominant spiritual force on earth, and because humanity, given vice-regency of creation, had put the Enemy in that position, a human had to be the one to dethrone him. But this is something that only God could do. Further, as history has shown, Anselm’s work has largely served to distort our understanding of God’s goodness and love, something which was already an issue, going back to the Fall.

Again, therefore, I have to recommend "The River of Fire". While I wish it were less polemical, perhaps it cannot be, because the points it makes are so true with regard to the distortions in Western theology, going back, not only to Anselm, but, farther, to Augustine and even Tertullian, distortions which are grounded, not only in the defective soteriology of Anselm, but also in a high view of original sin and a misunderstanding of Divine sovereignty, and because it presents the only view of human damnation which is compatible with an understanding of God as philanthropos, the lover of humanity.

In any event, I am interested in the book you mention. Would you post a review/discussion of it on your blog?


Don said...

You've brought up an interesting subject. It brings to mind for me an entirely different topic, namely the concept of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

As you probably know, these people are Arians. They adhere to the "perfect man" theory about Jesus Christ. They also have the idea that Jesus Christ's sacrifice was a perfect payment for sin. This is based on the idea that, since human history is finite and human actions are thus finite, the amount of sin to be paid for is also finite. So it's possible in their idea for the "perfect man" to have the finite payment, which obviates the need for an infinite God to do so.

The JW's Arian theology, of course, cannot stand, as I demonstrate here.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Greg,

First, I pray your trip to Knoxville for the ACCA Convocation will be safe and filled with blessing for all. The saints of the ACCA are dear to God's heart and to mine. I had hoped to be present for Sr. Mariam's ordination to subdeacon, but it does not look like that will be possible. I will be present, however, in prayer and spirit.

Second, I need to clarify the intent of my original comment. It was not about the atonement; on that I think we are relatively clear and in agreement. In the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God accomplished for us that which we could not accomplish ourselves -- reconciliation; victory over sin, death, and hell; incorporation into the divine nature, etc. We call all of this -- possibly for lack of a better, more all-inclusive word -- atonement. That is the "thing itself." What we are discussing are various metaphors for the atonement -- theories about the "thing," but not the thing itself. We (you/me, East/West) should never be divided by our theories when it is the atonement itself that matters.

Frankly, as you well know, the NT offers us several metaphors: ransom, sacrifice (Paschal lamb imagery), Christus Victor, and, yes, penal substitution. I think it does so because no single one can bear the weight of description by itself. Each provides a glimpse of the great truths of God's holiness and love, and cumulatively we understand better than by focusing on any one metaphor in particular.

So, it was not (and is not) my intent to champion one metaphor over another -- and certainly not penal substitution (which in many ways is the metaphor I like least). But, I do strongly believe that we do our faith a disservice when we construct a most uncharitable caricature of a particular metaphor and then proceed to strike it down. And I still think the parable you quoted does just that. Many strong proponents of penal substitution would not recognize that as an honest attempt to illustrate their convictions -- nor do I, who hold that metaphor as loosely as I hold all others. As semanticists say: "The word is not the thing, and the map is not the territory."

I need the Eastern and Oriental metaphors to balance my understanding of the atonement. Likewise, my Eastern and Oriental brothers and sisters need the Western metaphors. There is a little truth in each, and full truth in none. The atonement is the truth, not our metaphors for it.

Thank you for referring me again to "The River of Fire." I have read it many times, in fact. I find it interesting and helpful, but not theologically compelling as a sole atonement metaphor. It captures part of the truth, as do the others -- but no more than that. (And, it is charitable to call it a polemic. A large dose of humility for all of us is in order.)

I may do a review of "A Community Called Atonement" sometime, though you can almost certainly read better ones (and probably mixed ones) on Amazon. The basic theme of the book is that the atonement can best be understood as "identification for incorporation." That is, Jesus identified fully with humanity -- all the way down to death -- so that we might be incorporated into the divine nature through our life in him. You might like the imagery: McKnight describes humanity as cracked Eikons and the atonement as a restoration of the divine image.

Enough for now. Grace and peace to you through our Lord Jesus Christ -- through whom we have atonement.