December 30, 2006

Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power

Theories of atonement, expressions of how Jesus' life and death convey God's saving power, stand at the center of Christian theology, and also stand at the core of what it means to be church. So says Peter Schmiechen, in this expansive work of scholarship, Saving Power, about the atonement. Schmiechen sets out to survey the important ways that atonement has been understood, and then to analyze and evaluate the various expressions, on his way to outlining some of the essential components that make up a theory of atonement and, further, to layout out some central claims made across the various theories about what atonement has to say about God and about us.

Schmiechen lays out ten theories of atonement, divided up under four major headings. He also looks at a particuar figure or writing that typifies each view.

A. Christ Died for Us
1. Sacrifice (Hebrews)
2. Justification by Grace (Luther)
3. Penal Substitution (Charles Hodge)
B. Liberation from Sin, Death, and Demonic Powers
4. Liberation (Irenaeus, twentieth-century liberation theology)
C. The Purposes of God
5. Renewal of Creation (Athanasius)
6. Restoration of Creation (Anselm)
7. Christ the Goal of Creation (Schliermacher)
D. Reconciliation
8. Christ the Way to the Knowledge of God (H. R. Nieburh)
9. Christ the Reconciler (1 Corinthians 1-2)
10. The Wondrous Love of God (Abelard, Wesley, Moltmann)

In this first part of the book, Schmiechen does a very admirable service in providing a clear exposition of each of the different views, a concise outline of the logic of the view, a rather detailed look at one figure (sometimes more) or New Testament writing that exemplifies each presentation, and then synthesises and evaluates each of the different theories. Undoubtedly one could quarrel with small points of analysis or presentation, but on the whole his outline is a thorough and clear presentation of a broad range of atonement theories.

The theory that comes under the most fire in his presentation is the "penal substitution" theory, and the presentation of it by Charles Hodge. Schmiechen sees this view as typified by an understanding that sinners stand under God's righteous judgment, and that Christ's death pays a penalty in our place, satisfying the demands of the law. The points he takes most issue with is the idea that atonement would be a transaction with God as object in some way. That is, something is done to or given to God to appease is wrath and judgment. This would mean that in God justice has won out over love as the ultimate demand to be satisfied. It also means that Jesus' death is an end in itself. Schmiechen doesn't throw out the theory entirely though, instead proposing what he sees as a radical reformulation, maintaining a recognizable outline of the theory but stressing that while Jesus death can be in some ways interpreted as being for us, it shouldn't be looked at as a "compensation offered to God to enable God to redeem us" (118). Instead, Jesus death is seen as a revelation of God's judgment against sin and a revelation of the obedience and fidelity that typify God's intention for creation, thus removing any transactional quality.

In some ways, Schmiechen's criticisms are surely on base. He insists that penal substitution is problematic if it affirms only God's justice as an ultimate characteristic of God's person, requiring the law to remain always fully in force, even over God. For formulations of penal substitution that succumb to this danger, this is a relevant critique, because it recasts the good news in language of vindication, not grace. But I don't think this attitude typifies this understanding of the cross, where Jesus is almost always understood in terms of his identity as the Son of God, following God's will even unto death. God is first and primarily subject. The value of his second critique is less clear. He sets out to counter any argument that sees Jesus' death as an end in itself, apart from his life of holiness and obedience, which he sees as ultimately a valorisation of retaliatory violence. Again, there is a good reminder that Jesus death shouldn't be understood as radically divorced from his person and life, nor that God in some way condones or enacts retaliatory violence upon those who sin out of some vindictive desire to punish those who dare to cross him. Again, there is value in being aware of the tendency to valorize suffering and to condone violence, and his word is an important critique of too much preaching and teaching that confuses this issue. But, getting to the core of the theological argument, Jesus death can and should be understood as the reason he came, the high-point and focus of his life and ministry. And was understood this way already in the New Testament (e.g. Phil 2, 1 Cor 2), as is made clear by the relative space given to the Passion narratives in the Gospels, and even seemed to be the understanding of Jesus himself, who predicted his own death on numerous occasions and who in the Gospel of John spoke of his death by saying "my time has come." I would even argue that Schmiechen's logic is almost turned on its head here, and that any atonement theory that doesn't see Jesus death as the central and defining moment in his life has a strong uphill climb to legitimacy.

After his in-depth analysis of the ten theories of atonement, which take up the bulk of the book, Schmiechen concludes by discussing the structure and role of atonement theories, and by laying out five points or dimensions to discuss when looking at atonement: 1. From image to theory; 2. God's opposition to sin, death, and demonic powers; 3. the purposes of God; 4. persons in community; and 5. God's initiative. This framework allows him to discuss the themes that carry through many or all of the theories, and also present a way to evaluate theories for their adequacy on these various points. He then concludes the book with a very insightful discussion of how theories of atonement relate to forms of church. He looks at how various understandings of atonement, with their accompanying understandings of how that saving power is bestowed, lead naturally (but not necessarily) to various shapes for the Christian community. One of the examples that best typifies this discussion is the recognition that Luther's reunderstanding of atonement in terms of justification by faith leads to church that is centered around preaching of the Word and the use of the vernacular Bible, in order to get the truth of God's Word out to the greatest number of people and incite faith. This final chapter is one of the greatest values of the book, though it is short, in that it helps us to recognize the centrality of the atonement to our life as church, and second, helps us to recognize that the same atonement theory can lead to different expressions of church when understood differently. This can be cause for fruitful dialogue and empathetic listening on the part of people from various denominations.

In Saving Power, Schmiechen has written an important study of the atonement. As he carefully presents a broad spectrum of options in a sympathetic way, he invites the reader to recognize the values implicit in each of them, and points a way toward a deeper and more powerful understanding of what it is that God has accomplished in Jesus. I know I was surprised by the power of a number of the views, and found friends in Christian thinkers from centuries gone by that will help enliven and energize my own thinking about Jesus Christ, and I trust it will have the same benefit for all who invest the time in these pages.

December 20, 2006

Paul and theories of atonement: Romans 5

Over the past hundred years, it has become common to speak of various theories or models of atonement. And on the whole I think this has been a worthwile enterprise, as we come to appreciate the variety and depth of different ways to speak about what God accomplished in Jesus Christ. We can understand Christ's death as a liberation from forces of sin, death, and evil, or we can understand his death as a sacrifice on our behalf. And there are quite a number of other ways to understand Jesus' death.

I think a truth that is absolutely essential to keep in mind during all of these discussions is that while it may be possible to classify some theories in this way to see how typical images and forms of thought are used to try put into words what Jesus accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection, it is equally as vital to see that no one of these theories is complete in itself, or is or should be isolated from others. It is detrimental to speak of the atonement in terms of say a theory of sacrifice if the image of atonement as the love of God is left completely out of the picture, for instance. And I think a good example of what it means to hold multiple theories or images together is already to be seen in Paul's writing about Christ's death in Romans 5.

A careful reading of Romans 5 shows us quite a number of images or approaches to Christ's death are being held to gether to create a picture of what his death means. Paul speaks of Jesus' death accomlishing justification by grace (which Schmiechen in Saving Power classifies as a theory of atonement), a central image to Paul's thought. But Paul ties this image closely together with God's wondrous love, speaking in 5:5 and 8 about God demonstrating his love in Jesus and his death and pouring that love into our hearts. Paul also speaks of Jesus death as effecting reconciliation, the bringing of humans back into right relationship with God. As part of this reconciliation theme, Paul also speaks of Jesus as the second Adam, fulfilling the role of true humanity and effecting a renewal of Creation, a completing of God's purposes. In addition to these images, Paul also speaks of the efficacy of Jesus' blood (5:9), which points to a sacrificial understanding of Jesus death as covering over sins and removing God's wrath and judgment. And just to complete the picture, there are also overtones of a liberation theory of atonement, as Paul writes in verse 6 that Christ died for the ungodly "while we were still powerless."

It is very instructive to look at the logic and imagery of each of these theories or models independently, to come to a deeper understanding of what it means, but this type of study becomes harmful if any one theory is used in isolation to others. This is not to say that all ways of talking about the atonement are equally correct, but instead to say that it seems clear that no set of images can contain the deep meanings of what God accomplished in Jesus.

December 19, 2006

The beggar myth

Living in Lima, Peru, I daily encounter a number of beggars on the streets. And at each of these encounters, I still am beset by a number of often conflicting emotions. Pity and compassion come easily and quickly, wanting something better for these poor people. But usually not more than a split second behind is the thought—the oft-told myth—what if this person is one who beggs for easy money, too lazy to work at a real job. Or of course, this could be one of the beggars who use the money frivolously for cigarettes and alcohol.

Who hasn't heard someone voice this as a concern, and I'd dare say far too often as a reason for ignoring beggars? Because we seem to have this fear of being taken advantge of. "Of course I want to give to the poor," so why not now? Somehow this myth seems to win the day. Now, I grant you that there must be people out there who strive to take advantage of those more fortunate, or who use the money they obtain for less-than-noble purposes. But is this a reason to stop giving as a rule.

I've come to more and more realize that it's not my job to judge the person worthy of my condesention and aid. Jesus didn't go around finding the worthy beggars and most noble outcasts to befriend and heal, he went so often to what seemed to be the bottom o the social ladder. I admit that this isn't always comfortable territory. But that's okay. It is about time we realized that it isn't our judgment that these people need, but our love and acceptance. Like Paul says in Romans 2, it is our compassion and forgiveness that leads people to repentance, not our judgment in place of God. Not that we will always see the change in people, but maybe giving without expecting anything in return might begin to give someone pause.

And in the end, we are all beggars.

The gospel and inclusivity: Romans 2

In today's pluralistic and postmodern world, looking at what it means to be inclusive and accepting is an important task. Because today few thigns are more valued in our culture than these values. And Christian communities have reacted to and incorporated these values differently. Some churches strive to be known by inclusivity and acceptance, while others strive to be on the front lines of the culture war and draw careful boundaries around who is in and who is out. As an evangelical, I feel myself pulled in both directions. And rightfully so, I think. So that is just why I think it is a topic worthy of reflection.

In Romans 2, Paul is working on laying out the logic behind his presentation of the gospel message of justification by grace and inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles in the Christian community. He has begun by making the assertions that God's righteousness is revealed in the gospel and God's wrath is revealed in his reaction to people's rejection of his will. In the first section of chapter 2, Paul takes up what it means for Christians to judge others. He asserts in crystal clear language that everyone deserves to be judged based on truth, but he equates this with "God's judgment" (2:2). But for those of us who aren't God, he says, "So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment?" And I don't think he is just saying that I look like a hypocrite when I castigate someone for stealing but am caught with the same transgression in my background (or when a pastor who has berated homosexual behavior is caught with the same proclivities). I think his logic points more toward a broader assertion: we are all sinners (as he will say over and over in chapter 3), and judgment isn't in our hands.

So what does that mean for me? If you read further in Romans 2, or anywhere else in Paul for that matter, you know without a doubt that he's not talking about an anything-goes, syncretistic Christianity. And Paul is also a staunch defender in the need for Christians to proclaim Christ, and to seek to discern his will (see, for example Romans 12:2 and Philippians 1:9-11). I'm not sure I can lay out exactly what it means to practice these two seemingly contradictory ideas: do not judge, proclaim Christ and discern his will. But I do think that the core of what Paul is getting at is the attitude of the heart. Inclusivity should be our hearts desire, to accept all people as sinners, just as we are, unworthy of God's grace but offered God's unfailing love as a free gift. And no less than that, our heart is bound with Christ and no other, and this means striving always to live as he lived, and to flee from things that are odious and repulsive to God. So my post doesn't end with an easy answer. More it ends with a question, or maybe more, a reflection. That these two things probably should be a conflict within us as a community (if they are not, there is cause for serious worry). Paul probably sums it up best when he says, "Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?" God shows us an amazing love, a love we didn't deserve and can never boast about as being of our own doing. But that love leads us toward repentance. Somehow we need to strive to be that love that is exemplified in kindness, patience, and even tolerance, the kind that leads toward repentance and a new life and existence in Christ.

December 16, 2006

How to think about atonement

Atonement is one of those theoogical concepts that sits right at the heart of the Christian faith, but somehow it seems to be something that remains implicit in a lot of biblical and theological reflection. It seems easy to take for granted that Christ accomplished something, and we probably wed our assumption to a particular way of thinking about what Christ accomlished, though we may not be aware of it. It is clear upon reading the New Testament with atonement in mind that there are a lot of different images for understanding what it is that Christ accomplishes and how we understand it to be for us.

I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about how to understand this most important of topics. I first had to teach about it, and help my high schoolers understand what atonement means and the major ways it has been understood. I've also been doing some reading, starting with David Willis's Clues to the Nicene Creed. In that book, Willis voices what has become a common discontent in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. The idea that God would demand satisfaction and would need appeasement raises some significant questions about God's character.

I've recently been reading Saving Power by Peter Schmiechen. He sets out to investigate the major theories of atonement, investiating each presentation and looking at a major proponent of each view. He echoes the problems pointed out by Willis about the penal substituationary theory, the view that many evangelical protestants seem to take for granted as the central way to understand the atonement, since the work of theologians like Charles Hodge and the Princeton school, who elevated and defended it. And I think some of the problems he carefully points out have some validity. At some other time I'll need to reflect further on the biblical background of the penal substitution theory, and how this gets translated into the usual presetation.

But what I think is of more value for the moment is noticing, though not for the first time, that there are an abundance of ways to understand the atonement. Schmiechen puts these views (he finds ten) into four major categories: Christ died for us; liberation from sin, death, and demonic powers; the purposes of God; and reconciliation. There are so many powerful ways to understand what God has done through Christ. In his New Testament Theology, I. Howard Marshall reflects on the fact that Jesus blood as an atoning sacrifice is almost absent as a theme from Luke and Acts. Now atonement certainly isn't absent, but that particuar image is in the background. That brings me to my current reading: Saving Power. I have been struck by the fact that there are a number of different ways to explore and explicate the meaning of what God did in Jesus Christ, and have further been constantly amazed at how none of the pictures seems complete without the others. If we are too focused only on the liberation in Christ, or only on the appeasment of God's wrath through Christ's sacrifice, we are missing so much of the inexpressible depth of God's love shown in Jesus Christ, and of the new life that Jesus brings to us. So there will be more thoughts to come on different approaches to atonement.

December 09, 2006

Movie: The Island

I had a chance to watch the movie The Island last night. It is a well-made, fast-paced, and intelligent movie about what it means to be human. The movie starts off with an underground society, carefully partitioned off from the outside world because of a major contagion that has swept the whole earth. Everyone in this closed environment spends their days wanting to get to "the Island," the last pathogen-free place on earth. And there are lotteries that determine who gets to go. Lincoln 6-Echo (played by Ewan McGregor) begins to question their environment, and when he finds an insect that has made it in through the ventilation system, begins to wonder if the whole story about a contagion is false. So he sets off to explore, and discovers that the complex sits under a hospital, and in that hospital those who "win the lottery" and get to go to the Island are actually mined for their organs. The whole virtual world into which he has been indoctrinated is false. So he and Jordan 2-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), who has just "won the lottery," make a break for it, and are able to slip out of the complex and into the surrounding desert. They enlist the help of one of the workers Lincoln has gotten to know, and after learning the whole story from him, they set out to find their "owners," the people who have paid to have a genetic double standing by as insurance. In the end, they are able to get word out that the complex exists, and further, that the genetic doubles aren't just sitting in a vat of jelly waiting to be harvested but are alive and interacting.

The Island raises some interesting issues about medical ethics, cloning, and human life. The whole movie is based around the theme that clones are humans too. There would be some obviouls benefits to having a clone handy so there were spare parts available, but as nice as that fantasy sounds, with other attendant discoveries and medical advances like curing some diseases, the dangers are unspeakable. The manipulation of life that is required in cloning is not worth the advances. As the movie shows, it takes a loss of our own humanity in order to manipulate human life in that way. But there is also a weakness in the movie. The theme of cloning is treated as not problematic in itself. What causes the source of public outcry isn't that clones are being made but that they are allowed to be born and have conscious lives. Somehow, it seems, it would have been fine if the clones had never been aware of their existence, but once they become conscious, the seem to take on a new value. The line they are seeking to draw seems all too artificial, and demonstrates the briar patch of problems once we have advanced too far down the road toward manipulation of human life. But in the end, this movie is worth watching, both for entertainment value and for the conversations it sparks. Like Gattica, for instance, it is an interesting exploration of biomedical ethics.

December 05, 2006

Christ the Creator

One of the central affirmations about Jesus in the NT is that he is one and the same with God the creator, and in fact all things were created through him. And I’ve always seen this as being part of a clear affirmation of Jesus as God—being on par with saying something like “Jesus is so completely God that he is the creator God.” It also serves as an affirmation of the fact that Jesus isn’t a created being, a creature like us, only of a higher sort (a point that had to be reaffirmed a few hundred years later against Arius). But in doing some reading on atonement, I’ve come to appreciate another deep meaning in the simple statement that God created the world through Jesus. Athanasius, one of the theological giants of the first four centuries and a participant in the council of Nicaea, wrote that it is proper for us to think of God redeeming this world that he has made. He argues that while it wouldn’t have shown weakness for God not to have created, once God had created, it was fitting and proper for God to redeem the world, and in fact not redeeming it was out of the question. He goes on to make the point that it is also fitting that this work of redemption would be done by the same Word through whom the world was created. He writes, “For it will appear not inconsonant for the Father to have wrought its salvation in him by whose means he made it” (from “On the Incarnation of the Word,” Christology of the Later Fathers, 56). It may seem a simple insight, but for me, it turns the logic of thinking of Christ as creator on its head. I had always though of it as an affirmation of the deity of Christ, an affirmation of who he is, but Athanasius helps us to see that more than that, thinking of Christ as creator is fitting, because how else would God re-create the world that he had made except in the same way that it had been created in the first place. This simple insight helps to recontextualize our thinking about what atonement means. More than thinking of it just as forgiveness or freedom, we appreciate that in Christ, God was displaying his purposes for creation. In learning about Jesus, and appreciating his action as the action of the very Creator of our world, we come to know all the more intimately about who we are as God’s creation and what we were created for.

Athanasius certainly wasn’t the first Christian thinker to put these pieces together. There is ample evidence that his pattern of thought was clearly present already in the NT. Paul makes these same connections for us in Colossians 1 and helps us begin to appreciate their significance. In Col 1:15, he beings by asserting that Christ is the “image of the invisible God,” and moreover that “by him all things were created.” So we start with a clear affirmation of Christ’s divinity, and see him as Creator, with authority over all things. But Paul then goes on to connect this image of Christ as creator with his work of holding all things together. That speaks both of his work of creation and his work of redemption. Jesus was God reconciling all things to himself because Jesus is God in whom all things hold together, and it is fitting that the work of atonement and reconciliation would be done by him. What an amazing thought.

(Colin Gunton writes quite a lot about the theme of Christ as Creator in The Triune Creator, and I am sure he has these insights well in view. Being in Peru and thousands of miles from the great majority of my library means I can’t consult it to read further at this point.)