Tag Archives: atonement

Moving east to find lost treasures…


In the light of the current Rob Bell controverse (if you don’t know what I mean just google his name and ‘love wins’)  there are some thoughts that are not new, and there’s probably nothing new about them… For example, Kingdom Grace has made similar remarks earlier, but I’ll try to explain how I see it.

While not much seems to be happening here in Flanders in the (very small) evangelical world, it seems like the internet is announcing over and over the end of evangelicalism in the US, or its split. The fights over Rob Bells new book (ironically called ‘Love wins’, how naive of him, you know christians will never exhibit love if they disagree… hmm ) seems to make a division between the hardcore reformed who hold to a theology I find very troubling sometimes (and I’m not the only one) and all the others, who are not considered ‘in’ for some of those… But frankly,  I don’t believe calvinism is the most helpful tradition here.

I don’t think we need to return to seventeenth century ‘orthodoxy’ if we want to find our roots again, and neither do I think we need to read the bible through a few elect pauline verses… Yes we need to go back to our roots, but the problem with sola scriptura is that where we had 4 schisms in the first 1500 years, we have had 30000 church splits since protestantism, so even when teh bible is infallible, everybody seems to have another opinion about what it says… So we don’t just need to go back to the bible, but also look at the others who are going the same way as we do, and/or those who did in the past.

Yes I think that the ‘modern’ protestant church has been navelgazing too long, blinded by our cultural assumptions, and it might need some input from other traditions to refresh its vision (and more open ears to the Holy Spirit!!!). I might be quite unmodern being both pentecostel (which according to some is more pre-modern) and influenced by C.S. Lewis, who called himself the last ancient westerner, but I’m not going to do all the emerging church babble about postmodernism being better than modernism. Still I’m affraid that I’m convinced that modernism and Christianity don’t mix very well. Both fundamentalism and liberalism, the 2 polar opposite adaptions christianity made to late modernism are not the most vital and life-bringing forms of Christianity, and did much harm to the gospel.

So my proposal is to learn from non-modern christian traditions to find back what we’ve lost with the blind spots of our modern eyes. Thats’s in fact one of the things happening in and beyond the ‘emerging church’, and one of the problems for some is that those traditions are far away from standard dispensationalism and calvinism. One of those traditions which we can learn a lot from is the (neo-)anabaptism which probably is the most attractive side of the emerging church to me. A focus on discpleship and following the Jesus of the gospels is something we surely need in our churches! Every church a peace church!!

(another one would be the charismatic tradition, of which I am already part, which is frustratingly ignored in some parts of the emerging church tending too much to naturalism!)

So what’s the ‘new’ one I’m finding more and more interesting? It’s actually a very old one, and unlike anabaptism undeniably totally outside of protestantism, and it was even left out of Brian McLarens ‘generous orthodoxy’, but I don’t think it can really be considered ‘unorthodox’ in any way at all, since I’m talking about the so-called eastern orthodox church here. They own the word!

People who read here regularly know that I recently was very impressed with a video pointing out the differences between the orthodox and protestant view of salvation. I do indeed think that the orthodox have a much more complete, biblical and coherent view on salvation than the good-friday-only penal substitution some of us protestants preach! And we can and should also learn a lot from their non-dualistic view of reality, their insistance of the presence of God, and their embrace of paradox and mystery instead of trying to push all of reality into systematic theology!

And I’m not the only one who has been discovering this, even people in my own denomination (the vineyard) are discovering that the the eastern orthodox are theologically very interesting and very close to the ideas some post-evangelicals are (re)discovering. Yes indeed, the ‘heresy’ of some of Rob Bells or even NT Wrights views is in fact much closer to eastern orthodoxy and the church fathers than to calvinism, which is in return a heresy condemned by both the catholic and orthodox church… The whole idea that Jesus came to save us in the first place from the wrath of God would be totally alien to them. To quote American orthodox priest Father Stephen:

Intricate theories of the atonement which involve the assuaging of the wrath of God are not worthy of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I can say it no plainer. Those who persist in such theological accounts do not know “what Spirit they are of.” It is not ever appropriate to exalt a Biblical system over the plain sense communicated to us in the Gospel. No matter the chain of verses and the rational explanations attached – we cannot portray God as other than as He has shown Himself to us in Jesus Christ. To do so makes the Bible greater than Christ.

It is very difficult in our culture, where the wrathful God has been such an important part of the gospel story, to turn away from such portrayals – and yet it is necessary – both for faithfulness to the Scripture, the Fathers, and the revelation of God in Christ.

I commend the referenced work, the River of Fire, for its compliation of Patristic sources. I also beg other Christians to be done with their imagery of the wrathful God. They do not know the God of Whom they speak. Forgive me

So, I think we can and should learn a lot from the orthodox (among many other traditions), who have a much more complete view of salvation, and who seem to be able to make a lot more sense of the ressurrection, without which our hope is in vain according to Paul, but which is reduced to just some counterintuitive fact that should be believed in to be saved by some fundamentalists.

but no, I’m never ever going to become eastern orthodox myself. My theology of church would fall somewhere between those of Frank Viola and John Wimber and is quite opposite to the hierarchical liturgical view of an old church with only male priests: I believe in the priesthood of all believers, where ‘everybody gets to play’ and where men and women can excercise the gifts the Spirit has given them. And I don’t buy the stuff about relics and saints (even though their theology of the communion of the saints and the witness cloud sounds interesting to me!)

So if we want to restore a truly ‘evangelical’ faith, we have to recover the good news of God redeeming all of creation and of the hope Jesus brought in the resurrection. The vision of Gods kingdom as layed out in the gospels is incompatible with a gospel that is only concerned with saving individual souls from Gods wrath, it’s about the restauration of all of creation! And here I think can learn a lot from those older brothers in our faith in Jesus Christ.

(Even if we’ll still disagree about a lot of things and not be able to be in communion with them because different views on church, priesthood and eucharist. )

But it’s not about which tradition is best. It’s about understanding God more, and participation in the mission of His kingdom.

shalom

Bram

ps: I am in no way an expert in orthodoxy, so if anyone has helpful links or book titles to enlighten me more, please share them with me and my readers!!!

Rethinking my childhood atonement theory


When I was thinking about the whole discussion about the ‘how’ of the atonement Jesus brings the cross (I’ve written about the subject earlier in this recent post, and here, and here) I suddenly realised at last that my first basic understanding of it, like I had from my childhood on, was neither penal substitution -Jesus took the punishment for our sins in our place- nor exactly the Christus Victor/ramsom version -Jesus handing himself over to evil/death, which could not take Him, and thereby having victory over it-. It was something even simpler, and now I wonder how I could have not seen that in all these theological discussions my basic version that I have found evindent from my childhood on is rarely adressed.

Surely, the ransom motif in the narnia story has always impressed and inspired me, already as a child. And I must have picked up penal substitution somewhere, maybe in my teenage years, but none of those has actually been my primary understanding of the atonement Jesus brought on the cross, though it’s much closer to Christus victor. It might be more a form of scapegoating though, but I’m not that familiar with that methaphor.

The explanation of how I understood the atonement, as a kid in the pentecostel church, is very simple: Jesus just took all the sins of the whole world on the cross, and also all sickness, curse and death, all our guilt and shame, and carried it for us on the cross, he just took it all in our place. And ‘our’ here is all the people in history, before Jesus, in His time, and after Him. It’s that simple. He just took all of it on Himself, and got killed by it and so destroyed it, but resurrected…

I still kinda like this idea when I think of it. Technically it’s a very primitive form of substitutionary atonement, but not penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) at all. Jesus, the lamb of God, carries the sins of the world himself, not a punisment for them. It differs from the Christus victor and Ransom idea because evil is not explicitly personal here, though it’s much closer to it than PSA. For me it’s very basic and logical, but since I’ve not seen the atonement explained like this in most discussions, I wonder if I’m missing something…

The dangers that can come with this way of thinking are clearly manifested in some pentecostel and charismatic circles: Jesus did that for us, and now we just can claim to be free from sin, pain, sickness, whatever, because Jesus fixed that for us by dying. So you get the whole health and wealth stuff, and the ‘name it an claim it’ nonsense.

Now I know thos story is way too incomplete, so I want to propose some additions/correctives to add to this basic understanding, borrowed from different traditions:

  1. The resurrection, or maybe even the eastern orthodox emphasis on The resurrected Christ: This whole story does not make sense unless we make sense of the resurrection, in which we as christians do share… We do share in the resurrection, and as Paul says, without the resurrection our whole faith is meaningless…
  2. the whole narrative of the bible, starting from genesis 1 to revelation 21-22, and not just from genesis 3 to some assorted romans verses… Humans as ‘imago dei’, or cracked eikon in popular postmodern evangelical lingo, and Jesus who takes all the cracks to deal with them himself in our place so we can be restored as imago dei…
  3. The trinitarian emphasis. The atonement on the cross cannot be only Jesus and the Father… The outpouring of the Spirit of all flesh, as prophecied by Joel and actualised on the day of pentecost, has to be part of this story somehow.
  4. Perichoresis, or the trinitarian dance of the Father, Son and Spirit, in which we as humans get our place again, which we lost in the Eden story is also part of the atonement…
  5. The Kingdom narrative which Jesus Himself called the gospel or good news, the reinforecement of the Reign of God… This is not completed yet, so we also need the vineyard emphasis on ‘already and not yet': If we look at reality, it is not true that once we become a Christian we stop experiencing sin, sickness, evil, and death. So we have to think of it in ‘already and not yet’ terms. We could also use the D-day/V-day motif from a more cosmic warfare model here.
  6. The discipleship emphasis: We are to follow Jesus; also in this aspect. We are to carry the evil of the world for others, even to death. His example is one of a reconciled life, or how one looks in this fallen world… We don’t have 4 books called the gospels without a reason…

So what do you think? What do I miss here? Is it helpful in any way? Are there terms in technical lingo that I should know to work this out further?

Shalom

Bram

notes

  1. I don’t believe that the gospel can be reduced to any atonement theory at all, not PSA, nor Christus Victor nor the story that I’ve laid out here… So I’m affraid I have to disagree with all those who claim that the penal substitution is the heart of the gospel. Since that theory did not even exist for the first one and a half or so millenium (read the interesting article by Derek Flood in reaction to those who claim to read PSA into the writings of the church fathers)
  2. this is just a basic draft, made in some hours, it’s not comprehensive in any way. I’m just trying to sort out the atonement starting from what I believed as a kid, and not from the theology books…

Psalm 51 and atonement theories


Last saturday I was attending a bible study from our youth grou, and at a certain moment we were discussing a part of psalm 51, which was projected unto a screen. Seeing the last part I had some thoughts that may have brought the discussion totally off-topic, and it already was lost in escalation so I kept silent. But somehow I do regret that now, so I will write down my thoughts now for the readers of this blog…

I will start with the bible verses from psalm 51 (for some reason the verse numbers are different from the dutch version but that isn’t important here):
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God.Renew a right spirit within me.  11 Don’t throw me from your presence, And don’t take your holy Spirit from me.  12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation. Uphold me with a willing spirit.  13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways. Sinners shall be converted to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation.My tongue shall sing aloud of your righteousness.  15 Lord, open my lips. My mouth shall declare your praise.  16 For you don’t delight in sacrifice, or else I would give it. You have no pleasure in burnt offering.  17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

The first verses are very familiar to me since we do sing a Keith Green song based on them in our church… But that’s not the point now. This psalm is said to be written by King David after he committed one of the worst crimes of his carreer: He had seen a beautiful woman bathing so he sent her man who was an officer in his army on a mission that would kill him, so he could take his wife… So David here is both a murderer and an adulterer. But eventually he comes to see what he has done (with help of the prophet Nathan) and he repents, and that is the moment this psalm is composed. So the context of these words is clear: the whole psalm is about salvation from the point of a serious sinner who has repented and wants restauration. It’s about how God forgives (and remember, this is long before Christ and the cross)

Now those words were on a screen, and I thought about the ‘basic evangelical story’ of atonement that I have heard so much, about the cross of Jesus: Man is a sinner, and God cannot just forgive him, sin is to serious for that, and someone needs to get punished. So God needs bloodshed and to punish someone to be able to forgive humans. Hence all those sacrifices in the old testament, in which the animal is a substitute for the sinful man that suffers death it his place.  But those offerings were not good enough in the end so Jesus had to come to give His blood, and take the punishment in our place, so once and for all with this one sacrifice God would be able to forgive us…

I’ve always found it a very strange idea that God would demand blood to be able to forgive us, but for long it was just a mystery that I did not question much… Even though I had philosophical and theological questions about it and did I also know some bible verses that seemed to say something totally different about God needing blood and sacrifices to be able to saveus, like Hosea 6:6 For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. Atonement seemed to me more like a restored relationship than the payment of a punishment to God before He would be able to forgive us. The penal substitution atonement theory is unquestioned and seen as the basis for Christianity by much evangelical and (neo-) reformed Christians…

Later when I read more, I found out that it is not the ‘one and only biblical truth’, but just one of the many stories that tries to explain how Jesus’ cross saves us. There are different theories of atonement, but that’s something I think most evangelicals are not aware of, unles they have studied serious theology. But still most of us are familiar with another version of the atonement story, and I still have objections against that particular version I am affraid. It sounds too pagan to me, and it makes God a bit weak in my eyes… It is very strange that an all-powerful God would not be able to forgive us without punishing and killing something. But even though the bible is clear that Jesus’ cross brings us salvation, it is not that clear how exactly this happens, and in the long history of the church there have been different versions and explanations of the atonements story, and different methaphors have been used to explain it.

Even if they may be not aware of it, there is another version that most people in evangelical circles do know: the powerful picture used in C.S. Lewis’ narnia story: Edmund the traitor is a sinner, who has become rightful property of the witch (evil) and then the Lion Aslan (Jesus) gives himself in Edmunds place to the Witch to be killed. And then death gets reversed and evil is defeated… 2 older atonement views can be explained from the narnia story, which is not exactly a coincidence: Lewis was a professor in medieval literature, and he did not hold to the penal view of substitutionary atonement himself… What is needed in the story is not that someone is punished, but that the sinner is saved from his bondage to evil, and rescued from the destruction that comes with being enslaved to evil.
The first theory is the so-called ransom theory: Jesus gives himself as a ransom in our place, to be taken by the ‘other side’ (satan, death, evil,…) So what’s the difference now? We still have the same sacrifice idea, and Jesus who takes our place, but something is reversed: it is not God who wants to see the sinners blood, but who loves us sinners and sacrifices Himself to the evil from which we have to be saved that does not want to let go of us. Jesus gives Himself over as a ransom to that evil (in our place!) to release us. Another related theory from the early church, looking from a slichtly different angle is what is now called the Christus Victor theory, in which the emphasis lies on Jesus who could not be taken by death, and who reverses death, and so has victory over evil in which we all can share… So here we have a very strong resurrection theme, which is not unimportant: Christianity has no meaning without the resurrection, in which we share!

Other theories of atonement have been proposed in the church history. The aforementioned penal substitution story, which is favored by much evangelicals and (neo-)reformed originates from the ‘satisfaction theory’ from Anselm in the eleventh century. Another theory is the moral influence theory, that says that Christs sacrifice was needed to give an example of faith and obedience to inspire man to be obedient to God. So here the sacrifice of Jesus is important as the culmination of obedience to the law of love, in which Jesus gives His life… (No greater love than he who gives his life for his friends…)

But like I said, all of these theories, and various others, are just theories to explain how Jesus saves us. Not all of them are focussed on the cross and resurrection: the orthodox church says that the incarnation already has saving power, and the anabaptists tell us that following Jesus’ words and living as his disciples will save us. And some pentecostelism will learn us that it is the Spirit who came with pentecost who saves us here and now in a lot of situations.

Most of these views date from long after the time of the first church and the New testament writers, so none of those can be seen as ‘biblical’ (Calling the penal substitution  ‘the only biblical version’ because it can be illustrated with some bijble verses is poor theology, and denies a lot of church history). I like to see them as different windows looking on something that is too big to comprehend with our human mind… The important point is that Jesus has saved us from destruction by taking our place, and has conquered death, so we can share in the resurrection..

And even more: it makes no sense to be saved jsut in theory. If we are saved from the bondage of sin and destruction, and reconciled with God, we have to embrace life and step out of what is destructing us… We have to live a life that is again living in harmony with Life, and the world arounds us needs that too…

shalom

Bram