Friday, January 12, 2007

Substitutionary Atonement

Theology warning.

Substitutionary atonement is the beating heart of conservative evangelicalism. At its crux is the cross. (Clever sentence eh?) This theory takes the Old Testament seriously and sees Christ as the one true sacrifice who atones for (pays for, makes up for) human sinfulness in a way that all those dead lambs and pigeons could never do.

Evangelical thinkers and preachers (stand up Steve Chalke) who go near it to question get a rough ride.

I read this in The Guardian on Wednesday from Giles Fraser (not an evangelical but a respected liberal theologian and philosopher who always makes me think):

'...penal substitution ... is, among other things, the reason so many conservative Christians ... support the death penalty - wickedness must be paid for with blood. And it's precisely this equation that has come to rot the Christian moral conscience from within. For this theology is intrinsically vindictive, bloodthirsty and vengeful. Though many evangelicals and conservative Catholics think it the beating heart of the good news, it's a much later medieval interpretation that refuses the gospel's insistence upon forgiveness and non-violence.

'Jesus put it pretty clearly when he quoted his favourite passage of the Hebrew scriptures: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." The retributive logic that sin can be cancelled by pain is just what Christ resisted. And it was a stand taken by the Hebrew prophets before him.'

Read the whole article, a review of Mel Gibson's latest movie, here.

So don't panic. I'm not going to say Christ didn't die in our place. And don't over criticise Fraser for daring to suggest he knows what Jesus' favourite Scripture was - that way lies gnat straining and camel swallowing. I just want to hear and understand the challenge that those of us who see Jesus' death as putting an end to the ridiculous cycle of violence need to fully understand that it puts an end to all violent responses to sin wherever we find it. Punishment and revenge should turn into healing and reconciliation. I still find too many of my brothers and sisters in Christ baying for blood. Please stop. It's meant to have been stopped.


Matthew McMurray said...

I guess it is the difference between love and wrath.

It was love not wrath that made the Father send Jesus to the cross. One of my favourite quotes and I am not sure where it is from says, "It was not our sin that held Jesus on the cross; it was his love."

As Mike says, "the imperative of love".

Andy said...

Thanks St,

The atonement is my pet theological topic, and it's the one I think I bore most of my Christian friends about the most.

I wholeheartedly agree with you about the problems that Penal Substitutionary Atonement brings with it (the myth of redemptive violence, for a start) - but it's also the hardest thing to question in Christian circles.

I have, in the past, been told by almost all of my Christian friends and family not to question the traditional meaning of the cross - that it was theologising too far to question it.

And yet part of me cannot stomach the idea that a blood-thirsty God bays for the death of an innocent just to maintain his 'rep' (or, rather, his internal holy nature).

Thank fully there are many, many more ways of understanding the cross than just PSA.

Thanks for speaking up St!


Mike Peatman said...

I would echo the thanks for raising this one, Steve. I have had problems with penal substitution for a long time at all kinds of levels. To avoid a huge comment here, I'll blog it with a cross reference to you here.

Caroline said...

worryingly non-theological Christian alert

tell me, when does substitutionary atonement stop being penal and start being life giving?

when does it stop being a celebration of violence and start being God's healing intervention?

The problem, it seems to me, is not so much with the idea as with our need to create a systematic theology where we create words, sentences and paragraphs (to mention nothing of monographs, so I won't) that magically convey, without flaw or gap, the eternal, infinite and transcendent God we worship.

Substitutionary Atonement is helpful to me, I can understand the love of God reaching down, intervening and carrying away all that has fractured my life. I can also see where the words and logic that build up the overall idea are misleading.

the finite must always be misleading when dealing with the infinite.

I do not think that the problem is substitutionary atonement, I suspect a problem is with modernist thinking that we can define the infinite.

Caroline Too

Anonymous said...

Not sure how to do this, it is the first time I have. Also dont know how to be myself on this so I am coming up as Anonymous, I am actually Mark Close for any that care.

I think I come at this from a different theological standing point as many of you, but also I try and look at it from a different point of view.

To me I believe that creation is all about the cross, that includes the creation of people. When I say the cross is the center of my faith I mean just that. I believe that all of creation was set up so that Jesus, who is God, could die on the cross. The why is because it is only in the cross that Gods charicter is displayed in its fullness. God is totally rightious and just, but also totally compssionate and loving. It is in the cross that we see these two aspects of God clearly. The cross is where we see Gods glory. The cross is the place where we see God more clearly than any other.

Ultimatly I think the hardest thing for people to accept about theology, and to an extent creation, is that its not about us, its about God.