Monday, April 30, 2007

Long Words and the Death of Jesus

'Fire. Fire. Get out of the house now.'

Yes indeed people, if the domicile is in the process of combustion I want words of one syllable in single digit amounts.

Over the last week the Christian community has been having a reasonably public fall-out over a couple of long words - substitutionary and atonement. Words which have not kept most people's company very much and may possibly have been an early googlewhack. No chance now. 129,000 hits and rising daily. At least it's taken the attention away from all the vicars and choir masters in court.

Today I have been thinking a lot and have read a lot of background on a matter begun some months ago by Steve Chalke. He wrote a chapter in a book which culminated in him being removed from the speaking team on a Christian spring festival called Word Alive and, from what I gather, having all (or just some) of his books removed from sale at said event. Bishops have come down on both sides of a debate which hinges over the language we use when describing what happened when Jesus died.

Whilst I have achieved one or two other things today, every time my brain has stopped needing to be used for something else it has defaulted to this problem. Not the problem of which side of the debate to come down on; for all the difference it will make in eternity you may as well toss a coin having prayed to choose your model of atonement, a process which at least has the advantage of being biblical (Acts 1:26). The problem for me is that of language.

My problem goes like this. If there is a God (I live my life believing there is, much to the chagrin of some of my readers) then would that God not wish to make relating to him and understanding him simple? In which case would that same God require someone, in order to be able to relate to him, to be able to grasp the complexity of the doctrine modelled by the expression 'penal substitutionary atonement?'

Jesus, who the Christian church say exhibited such divinity in his life and death that he must be understood as God incarnate (on earth in human form), seemed to cope reasonably well with the two word jobbie - follow me. Why not us?

Well OK why not is because many of us are not worth following, but helping people to follow Jesus? Not such a bad idea? We know from the words he left us what sort of things he wants us to be doing - helping the sick and the poor, telling people about him as well as we can. Could one get any closer to God by being familiar with those previously mentioned long words?

God is easy to understand. We only, according to Romans 1:20, need to look around us and the qualities of God will be plain.

As a wasp plants its egg in a living ladybird so the new born has a warm place to grow up and something to eat as it does we should see God plainly. As the killer whale devours the weakest and slowest moving dolphin ensuring only the strong breed we should see God. As small fish eat the eyes of other larger fish ensuring that only the ones with the least well-developed sight mechanism survive to breed and a species evolves blindness we should see God. Ruskin's nature red in tooth and bloody in claw should show us God. As should pretty birds, nice hills and colourful plants. The war of words can be equally ugly/pretty.

That's the problem folks. I've gone about thirteen rounds with myself today in striving for a theology of simplicity that can be expressed simply, understood and responded to straightforwardly and yet does justice to those who say 'doctrine matters' many of whom are people I respect.

One thing of which I am sure. Banning your opponents books is a sign of weakness not strength. If Chalke's is such a silly argument it must be heard, exposed and ridiculed. If it has any merit it must be acknowledged. Saying that a view is unwelcome somehow makes it more alluring.

It's worth visiting here to see just how much time we need to follow all this stuff (and to get a bit of a summary of the problem too) although the writer does admit to being a quick typist.

I have always liked Brian McLaren's idea of us being more interested in conversation than conversion but have to confess this conversation has been distracting and, quite probably, irrelevant. I can't believe two Christian bodies have managed to fall out over it.


Matthew McMurray said...

I think it all seems a bit childish really. At the basic level we all agree that Jesus died for us.

As my simple mind sees it, the question is more one of motive and when we start talking about our understanding of God, we can all get just a little bit defensive.

I agree with your point that banning somebody's book shows weakness. There are too many people who are unwilling (perhaps even afraid?) to listen to other points of view and there are so many sensitive issues.

I struggle with the whole substitutionary question because when you hear or read the more conservative take on the crucifixion, you can find yourself asking where God's love was and it poses all sorts of questions about the Trinity for me.

I heard somebody say recently (in the last couple of years or perhaps I said it): "It was not my sin that held him there: it was his love." Another person said (and I do remember who): "Jesus is not the answer: he is the response." Could it not be enough to believe that Christ coming to earth and taking upon him the sinfulness of all men for all time was a love response to our helplessness? Why do we always bay for blood?

Mike Peatman said...

Thanks for this Steve. A conversation we have visited before, but still present with us.

I entirely agree with you that it is somehow typical Christian behaviour to find a reason to criticise, to ban, to become defensive and ultimately divide. The cross is described as a stumbling block, and so it seems it is. As we have said before, once a metaphor becomes a dogma, things start to distort.

This debate matters to me for a couple of reasons, though. The first is what does our atonement theology say about God. Many people who have been traumatised by abusive behaviour find a model of atonement based on a punitive father repulsive. It means they revisit the traumas of their past in the midst of Christian devotion. Is God (and in the PS theory, specifically God the Father) really like that?

Secondly it seems to screw up the Trinity. 'God can't look on sin' says the theory, and so we are separatedfrom God. Yet it is perfectly happy that God incarnate not only looks on sin, but relates to sinners, gets them to follow him and ultimately dies a sinner's death.

Whatever the truth is, it surely has to do better than this in describing who God is.

St said...

Colleague Jon said today that a college tutor of his asked if penal substitution was a model or the way things are. Good question. If a model then it will have shades of truth and other models will give us different hues. If however it is the way things are then it is non-negotiable.

Those who say it is a model need to deal with the questions, 'So what is the way things are? Can they be expressed or only modelled?'

Those who say it is the way things are need to deal with the question ,'So why are there other descriptions (or models) in the Bible such as victor over evil and death.

Mike Peatman said...

Hit submit by mistake first time. If it's the way things are to the exclusion of all else, then count me out. If it's a metaphor / model amongst many with weaknesses and strengths, I am open to listen

Simon said...

At the basic level we all agree that Jesus died for us.

How does that work then? The way it's been explained to me, it sounds like goats should be the grateful ones.

Christians always assume this 'Jesus died for us' idea is is blindingly obvious. It goes without explanation. And most non-believers are so used to the imagery, we don't question it either. We've seen the movie of the guy nailed to a bit of wood.

The impression is he's sacrificing himself for his beliefs, and we're all thumbs-up for that - it's the conventional hero's exit. The impression is this guy's beliefs are: we should be nice to each other; and the nasty people who are against this put him to death.

This is what I took away from Hollywood Bible epics as a kid. Although I didn't think there was a god, I sympathised with the sentiments.

St said...

I guess Matthew can answer for himself but you are right, as ever, to put your finger on a massive (and false) assumption that 'we all etc.'

We Christians need to be prodded(often) when we assume our beliefs to be blindingly obvious. In fact that is what this whole debate, mysterious as it may be to non-initiates, is about.

Perhaps we can find our first tentative stepping stone towards agreement in 'Jesus was one of the good guys.'

Simon said...

I'll go as far as: the character of Jesus was sold to me as one of the good guys.

It's the logic behind why Jesus had to die for us which baffled me for a bit. Until someone explained to me it was a sacrifice, just like sacrficing a goat or a virgin or something, only this was the big one which would cover everything, as long as you "followed".

Sound about right?

Matthew McMurray said...

I think that when I said "we all agree", I meant we Christians within many different groups of Christians who argue about what it means and why it happened. Perhaps I was and am naïve about this but it seems to me that Christians all accept the whole idea of Jesus dying for us. There are just certain types of pieces of paper that I will not sign!

I just had a sudden thought that it is quite interesting that the creeds make no mention of why Jesus died.

I am a fairly young person exploring what it means to be a Christian and what it might mean to be a priest. I am quickly learning that there are many things that are unclear and there are even more things that people disagree about and sometimes spit their dummy out of the pram about.

I hope that that goes some way to making what I meant clearer. Sorry if I did make a stupid and false assumption but I think it might have been clarity that was lacking.

Simon said...

Matthew, the Christian movement has been lacking in clarity for a long time, so don't blame yourself.

Perhaps I was and am naïve about this but it seems to me that Christians all accept the whole idea of Jesus dying for us.

Forgive me for stifling a chuckle, but surely if you didn't accept Christ died for us, you wouldn't be Christian.

St, Matthew - why did Jesus have to die for us?

Matthew McMurray said...

My first answer would be "probably not". I try as often as I can to avoid talking about who can and cannot be a Christian but the death of Jesus for us (or maybe better put the belief that it was for us) seems to be a fairly non-negotiable central point.

I don't know what St would say or Mike (or anybody else reading this who hasn't yet commented). I would say that Jesus didn't have to die. It doesn't seem to ring true with my experience of the faith. I would say that Jesus chose to die for us. Not purely to stop God the Father being angry at us but because he loved us and wanted to step in. The death of Jesus was, I believe, motivated by love not wrath. I think I need to think a bit more before I carry on with the comment.

Simon said...

Not purely to stop God the Father being angry at us but because he loved us and wanted to step in.

OK, so why did the killing of Jesus, the Son of God, by the Romans (ie: humans, or 'us') stop God being angry at us?

To me that sounds back to front. I thought God was against killing, so to have his son killed would surely have made him even angrier.

As you say, Jesus dying for us is central to your belief, to everything you value in life (I assume), so you can understand why I would expect this issue to be clear cut.

Matthew McMurray said...

I don't believe in penal substitution which, if I have understood it correctly, is the belief that Jesus died on the cross because for us to be forgiven, blood had to be shed so that God would not be angry anymore. [According to PS] God is holy and needs this sacrifice to take place in order that he might be able to forgive us.

So, I don't believe that it was to stop God being angry and was stating my non-belief of this view.

I believe that the sacrificial systems existed for man's benefit not for God's. God didn't need sacrifices, but maybe they were so that we could do something to let go of our guilt and put it to death.

As a consequence of this, I believe that God himself provided the sacrifice so that we would understand that the "price" - if there was one that had to paid - was paid and look to Jesus for our forgiveness.

St said...

Thanks for this. Simon's question, 'Why did Jesus have to die for us?' deserves taking at face value.

I'll post on it later. Sorry not to have done an instant reply Simon. I think you're right to expect this to be clear cut but it does need to be crafted if the answer is to be clear. Some of the clear answrs I have heard to this question, as indeed you tell me you have, are quite glib.

I'd like to try and produce a clear, but non-glib answer.


Simon said...

Sorry for misunderstanding. It's just you said "Not purely to stop God being angry..." which I took to mean you thought it was to stop God being angry but not only that.

So God doesn't need sacrifices but he provided one anyway, because it was something we understood. I think you're saying it was his way of telling us something.

I'm still confused really. I just don't understand how the Romans killing the Son of God could constitute a payment for sins committed. Particularly as killing is a sin in itself.

Matthew McMurray said...

I think recent news shows that Christians are confused about it just as much.

It is so tempting to think that my view is the right one and for us all to do the same. But I think that whatever our viewpoints, we need to be prepared to be challenged and be willing to listen to other points of view.

Matthew McMurray said...

Simon, I have just found your blog on this subject. I think, if you don't mind, I am going to join the conversation there because I am getting fed up of scrolling down for miles until I get to the last comment.