Tag Archives: atonement

10 old traditional and/or biblical Christian ideas that are sometimes mistakenly seen as ‘progressive’…

Foto0067Before we close the year with some lists of the most-read stuff of 2014 and an evaluation of my project of demodernisation (and de-Americanisation, see also here) I will post this one last long and maybe to some controversial blogpost. This time we’ll talk about certain basic Christian ideas or at least ancient minority positions within Christianity that are sometimes regarded as new and ‘progressive’ ideas and thus tied to a new and ‘progressive’ form of Christianity which is incompatible with either the old-fashioned nonsense of the past or the true ‘conservative’ Christianity, depending on which side of the false dilemma one finds themselves. Which is very problematic actually…

I’ve seen the combination of the words ‘progressive Christianity’ gain more and more influence over the last years on the English-speaking internet. The term itself is like other words including ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ a term that I find utterly unhelpful and quite ambiguous .  I’ve also seen a lot of very different and sometimes quite contradictory interpretations of what ‘progressive Christianity’ is supposed to be, some of which were interesting to me, and others which weren’t at all… It seems that the expression became more popular (at least in the blogosphere) when the ‘emergent’ brand lost its prominence, and that it also took over some of the content of that label, especially in the form of its ‘updated protestant theological liberalism’ (which frankly doesn’t interest me at all as a moderate anti-modernist).

(The main reason that I’ll never use the word ‘progressive’ to describe myself is that I completely reject the modernist myth of ‘progress’, which seems to be the root of the whole idea of contemporary progressiveness. But that’s another story that would only derail this post)

All of this does not mean that ‘progressive Christians’ don’t  have a lot of interesting things to say. A lot of the stuff that progressive Christians believe in and want us to talk about (but not all!) is very important to me too, or at least stuff I agree with… The problem here mostly the false dilemma that some see that I’ve mentioned already: the mistaken idea that ‘progressive Christianity’ (or ‘emergentism’, or liberal protestantism, or…)  is a new and better and modern thing (or postmodern or contemporary or whatever word  is used to describe both their chronological snobbery and modern-Western cultural imperialism/neo-colonialism) , something completely distinct from what came before disconnected from it, and better than anything before it anyway.

While the opposite is true: most of the prophetic things that ‘progressives’ have to teach us are quite old, and they are important truths that have a long history within Christianity. Some as a minority-view, some as the majority-view in other times or other Christian traditions. Some normative outside of modernism even…

Let’s also talk here  the confusion of terms with some of the other words besides ‘progressive’ before we start. I’ve written before about the term ‘conservative’, which only means an impulse to conserve a certain tradition. For example the American use of the word ‘conservative’ has nothing to do with ‘conservative Christianity’ as some kind of ancient basic orthodoxy, but with some fairly recent (last 200 years mostly) forms of protestantism tied to the political old-school liberalism of the founding fathers and the American constitution (which has nothing to do with Christian orthodoxy at all!)

Fundamentalism as a Christian movement has not much to do with a basic Christian orthodoxy either. It’s more an early 20th century reactionary antithesis to liberalism, emphasizing not at all the core of historical Christianity but some areas in which they disagreed with liberal theology of that time, which gave a very unbalanced view of what the ‘fundamentals’ of Christianity were that did not follow basic Christian orthodoxy at all. So while fundamentalism might be a photo-negative of classical liberal theology, it still is thoroughly modern in a lot of ways.  (see also this post for my problem with the bad photo-negative copy of it in American anti-fundamentalism, which is itself tied completely to what it tries to escape from)

So let’s list some of the ideas that are rejected by some or all American conservatives and fundamentalists, while embraced by progressives and thus seen as ‘progressive’ (or ‘liberal’)  by a lot of people. Those ideas are not new nor progressive nonetheless but have been part of the rich and diverse history of Christianity from the early days and can be traced back to the bible itself.   Most of them can be solidly defended from a basic orthodox reading of the bible.

(Note also that some of the things that are very important to the current ‘progressives’ are absent from this list because they just don’t fit in the list. Some are new for the modern age or just repackaged old heresies or non-Christian philosophies adopted by liberal Christianity. Rejecting the supernatural -spirits, angels, the afterlife- for example is not a new idea that people  could only come up with after evolving to a new step and entering the modern age. The Sadducees, who were more conservative than the Pharisees, already taught this and Jesus and the NT writers could have easily followed them, but they rejected it in favour of the views of the Pharisees…
But my exclusion of certain progressive ideas from this list doesn’t have to mean that I either agree nor disagree with any of them, just that I did not include them. I probably have forgotten a lot of stuff that could fit in this list….)

1. pacifism and Christian non-violence
I always assumed that pacifism or at least a tendency to non-violence were part of basic Christianity from my reading of the gospels, and especially the sermon on the mount. (I say this as a pentecostal kid living in a post-Catholic Belgian culture btw.) I know that some see it as an ideal that doesn’t always work, but even then, with enemy-love as one of Jesus commandments I could not conceive of Christians who would completely dismiss the idea in favour of militarism.
Great was my shock when I explored the internet as a young twenty-something and discovered Christians (mainly from the US) who completely dismissed the idea of Christian non-violence as dangerous and naive and placed it under the category of ‘liberal nonsense’. Such a view is completely a-historical and completely ignorant of the words of Jesus himself.
Christian non-violence does have a long history. It was prominent in pre-Constantinian times and while it wasn’t the majority position in later times (Even with ‘just war’ doctrine most wars would be seen as illegitimate btw… You can’t defend any of the American wars of the last half century with just war theory for example!) it has popped up regularly in the history of Christianity among groups or people who wanted to take Christ seriously. We see it appear already with the first Christians -who rather died that killed for their faith- over St. Francis of assisi -who went to meet the Sultan unarmed to talk about Christ in the middle of a crusade- and the line goes all the way to the Quakers and Anabaptists, and the modern Christian peacekeeper teams.  Christian non-violence is a deeply biblical idea that has been held in different degrees by a lot of people who took the New Testament and the words of Christ very seriously!

2. Anticapitalism
Recently the pope said some things about capitalism that were not received well by some American evangelicals. But contrary to what some people thought he did not say anything new and did only reword catholic doctrine that was already popetrickleaffirmed by the popes before him. What he said was quite logical for most non-American Catholics and other Christians also. I’ve never understood why capitalism is such a holy cow to certain (mainly American) Christians. It is a very modernist economic idea that has not much to do with classical Christianity but is tied to historical liberalism, and it can devolve very easily into economical and social jungle-law Darwinism, which is the opposite of anything a Christian could ever defend. So while it cannot be linked to the bible being a modern invention, it also goes counter to some Biblical and historically Christian ideas. Look at this list of quotes from the church fathers for example.
I once wanted to write a series about Christianity and capitalism but never got further than this first post  I also have written a post called Abundance is the enemy of capitalism. starting from the biblical idea of abundance as a part of shalom, which is opposed to the capitalist basic principle of scarcity…

I can also add that there is nothing new or ‘liberal’ about vaguely ‘socialist’ ideas and ways of living. The church of Acts was quite ‘communist’, as well as most monastic orders.
And let’s not forget that the only false god that is called by name in the gospels is Mammon, of with Jesus says that he cannot be served together with God…

3. ‘Green’ lifestyles and ecological awareness
If God is Creator (which all Christians including all evolutionary Creationists affirm – as far as I know) , and we are to love God above all, some respect for His creation seems to be very logical to me. Taking care of creation is also a commandment in genesis (unless you see ‘ruling’ as a very oppressive dictatorship, but I would say that we aren’t to do anything to nature we wouldn’t want rulers to do with us…) It always was logical to me that Christians should have a lot of respect for nature as the work of Gods hands, although it might be that this impulse was fed more by my (almost post-)catholic teachers in school than in my pentecostal upbringing.

Premodern people did live a lot closer to nature. Jesus spent a lot of time in nature praying and meditating throughout the gospels. Our modern disconnect with nature is far removed from the world of the bible, but respect for nature as Christians is a tradition that goes back at least to (again) Francis of Assisi, and probably the Celtic Church.
There is no good reason for us to condone destruction of Gods creation in favour of our idols like ‘the economy’ or ‘progress’. None of these does have to have any of our allegiance as followers of Christ…

I could also refer to Pope Francis here, who is rumoured to write an ecological encyclical in 2015  and repeat that there’s nothing progressive at all about conserving nature. If there’s anything at all that deserves to be called ‘conservative’ if that word has any meaning at all, it’s conserving the creation in which God has put us…,
(The same is true for most of the other ‘progressive’ views of Pope Francis. They are -like most things in this list- not new at all and actually quite ‘conservative’ in that they have a long biblical and traditional history)

4. Not taking the first chapters of genesis as literal history
And then for something completely different: I can’t be the only one who has noticed that the debate about a literal reading of genesis does mainly live in fundamentalist and evangelical circles, while it is more of a non-issue in most other classical orthodox denominations, including the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. Which already should say something about how ‘progressive’ the idea of a  non-literal reading of the first chapters of the bible actually is I guess.
There have been a lot of readings of the Creation story throughout church history, some of which were literal while others were completely allegorical. Augustine for example, while writing about ‘the literal interpretation of genesis’ assumes that the seven days where metaphor and that the whole cosmos was created at the same moment…

Even Charles Darwin himself did not think that his ideas of evolution were incompatible with his Christian faith. He did lose it over the cruelness of  nature though.

5. Rejecting the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment for all non-Christians
Another debate that is as old as the history of the Church is the fate of those not in Christ. While universalism has always been a minority position, belief in hell of some sorts seems to be a majority position, the details vary a lot throughout church history. Some of the church fathers seem to tend to very generous inclusivism or even in the direction of hopeful universalism, with some like Origen even arriving at full universalism. (Which means that Christ in his death and resurrection was able to save all from hell, not at all that all religions are the same or so…)
Another part of the discussion is the nature of hell. C.S. Lewis seems (in line with more orthodox church fathers) to see hell as being cut of from God, the Source of all life. Other orthodox thinkers see hell as the same place as heaven, where the undiluted presence of God is unbearable to those who hate Him.

Another alternative idea about the fate of the wicked is Annihilationism (the wicked are just annihilated and cease to exist after the judgement), and old and in origin Jewish idea that has been made popular in more recent times by the seventh-day adventists (also followed by the Jehovah witnesses by the way) for mainly biblical reasons.

6. Rejection of an exclusively ‘penal substitution’ view of the atonement in Christ
And another important discussion, but here the evangelical default itself is historically a more recent minority position: penal substitution atonement as we know it (Jesus saved us by taking Gods wrath upon Himself on the cross) is only as old as protestantism. For the other 1500 years and in other traditions very different ideas existed about how Jesus saved us by his life, death and resurrection. We even see this in the famous Narnia story, where Lewis follows a classical ransom-version of Christus Victor atonement: the sinner (Edmund) is freed from slavery to death and sin (the witch) because Jesus (Aslan) took his place and defeated death and sin in the resurrection… Note that this still IS substitutionary atonement, but not at all penal substitution. (If I understand correctly the idea of penal substitution as some protestants teach it is regarded as abhorrent and even heresy by a lot of Eastern Orthodox thinkers)

I am of the opinion myself that no theory of atonement will ever explain everything that happened so we need a lot of them together to have a more complete picture. Some popular versions of penal substitution, especially when elevated to the level of ‘gospel’ do sound very troubling to me though…

7. Egalitarianism in marriage and women preachers
As a Charismatic I became convinced of egalitarianism between the sexes for biblical reasons. I don’t see how a couple can be ‘one flesh’ as genesis says and still have one who always have to lead and another who always has to follow. I also am convinced by the bible more than by Christian tradition  of the importance of women in every role in the church., Jesus is quite ‘feminist’ (anti-sexist might be a better word) himself compared to his culture, like in the story of Martha and Mary for example, and the early church had a lot of women in a lot of positions, up to the female apostle Junia and the businesswoman Lydia who had a house church in her house.

It’s nonsense to put this kind of egalitarianism away as ‘liberal’ or claim it as solely ‘progressive’. I’ve seen women preachers in African pentecostal churches, and you can say a lot about those, but ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ did in no way apply to them. I’ve never had any interest in the liberal ‘we moderns know better than those dumb bronze-age desert people’ reasoning, and it still doesn’t convince me at all.
I do believe in the need of equality and mutual submission in marriage though for biblical reasons and from experience. I’ve met a lot of women who were used by the Holy Spirit through preaching, and denying that would feel quite a lot like blasphemy against the Holy spirit. God does use women in a lot of roles, and calls individuals for very different things, regardless of their sex.

(Let’s also repeat here that I don’t believe that any idea about ‘biblical manhood’ that does not fit with the fruits of the Spirit as described by Paul has any legitimacy at all. None of that stuff is biblical, it’s just unhealthy cultural stereotypes that are made legitimate by abusing bible verses.)

8. Rejection of the idea of the ‘rapture’ (and of dispensationalism as a whole)
Let’s be short here: the idea of ‘the rapture’ isn’t even 200 years old, so it’s from the same time as a lot of liberal theology. Traditionally most Christians have been amillenialist but there are more interpretations of biblical eschatology that make more sense than the dispensationalist one.
Nothing progressive about rejecting the rapture or dispensationalism, it’s just what every Christian before the 1800’s and most non-evangelicals since then did, whatever their eschatology was…
Some forms of dispensationalism do seem to border on heresy for completely different reasons too though.

9. ‘Mysticism’
Mysticism is a hot word in certain circles, and one that has a lot of different interpretations. The most basic meaning is to experience the presence of God yourself as a believer. It’s nothing new though, there runs a deep mystic tradition through both Eastern and Western Christianity which was already very important in the first centuries of Christianity with the desert fathers and mothers.
What does seem to be new and endemic to certain corners of contemporary progressive Christianity is that mysticism does in some way exclude the idea of supernatural beings. This is completely contrary to a lot of older Christian mystics who did encounter angels, demons and other ‘supernatural entities’ as if it were the most normal thing one could do…

10. Not framing the trustworthiness of the bible as ‘inerrancy’
The bible is very important for Christians for a lot of reasons, and it is one of the means through which we can encounter God. The bible is a library of books that are seen as inspired by God by Christians (‘God-breathed’ according to Paul in a very well-known verse) but the fundamentalist notion of ‘innerancy’ of the literal text of the bible goes further than how Christianity classically saw the bible. It did not by accident come into being around the same time  as the Catholics invented papal infallibility, a time when modernism eroded any faith in trustworthiness of the bible, the Christian tradition or Christian authorities.

This went further than the trustworthiness that premodern Christians ascribed to the bible, and gave rise to the modern ‘new atheist’ reading of the bible which is as far removed from the message of the bible as the fundamentalist one. (They are closely related anyway as purely modernist traditions)

So while I do affirm the trustworthiness of the bible (something that isn’t in the historical creeds btw!) I don’t think we should go looking for scientific or other details that are just not there. And we should not fear contradictions or paradoxes. God can speak truth through things that are not 100% historical as well. We have differences in the 4 gospels, and different theological agendas, even the church fathers knew that, but it wasn’t a problem until modern times (and it still if for the Orthodox and most Catholics…) so maybe we want the bible to be something that it isn’t meant to be.

In the end, the Word that became flesh is Jesus Christ, and the bible is here to point at Him, not at itself… It isn’t a paper pope and if it becomes an idol that distracts from God it’s really sad, not?  We should always seek God and Jesus in the bible, otherwise studying it won’t be of any worth, as Jesus says to the Pharisees somewhere…

So we come to the end of my list of things that are  not at all new to Christianity and can’t be claimed to be exclusively tied to ‘progressive Christianity’, whatever that even may be. Note again that the list is by no means exhaustive, and that I probably overlooked very important ones…

(I didn’t include much that goes against the republican ‘Americanist synchretism’ that some  American conservatives seem to believe in, with America as some holy entity that is more special for God than other countries or cultures. For non-Americans like me such things are too irrelevant and illogical to even address… Neither did I address double predestination for example, which is seen as heresy by the Eastern Orthodox and rejected by most non-protestants…)

So what do you think?



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.



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?




  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…