Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Baking the atonement

As I've read through many debates over the atonement on the internet recently, I've been intrigued by how different people combine the various ingredients.

There are four main atonement theories that people seem to hold to:
  • Penal Substitution
  • Christus Victor
  • Moral Exemplar
  • Satisfaction
Most people combine different views together, each with different emphases. It's like baking with a recipe: "Add 60% Penal Substitution to 20% Christus Victor and 20% Moral Exemplar and Voila!"

The other thing that adds to the confusion is that there seems to be a continuum between Penal Substitution and Satisfaction. At one end of the spectrum is a very "hard" / "strong" version of Penal Substitution which holds to double-imputation etc. The continuum passes through many varients of "weaker" Penal Substitution right through to versions of Satisfaction, where Christ still appeases God and turns away wrath, but does so without being punished. Thus, there needs to be as well a measure of how far along the Penal Substitution <---> Satisfaction continuum any given person is, measuring the "strength" of their Penal Substitution (high being a strong version of PS, low being some form of Satisfaction).

Hence people like NT Wright and Steve Chalke are probably using a recipe which looks something like:
40% Christus Victor
30% Penal Substitution / Satisfaction at 40% strength
30% Moral Exemplar

They have commented that a model of (what I would describe as) 90% Penal Substitution at 90% strength looks "sub-biblical" and like "divine child abuse".

Traditional defenders of Penal Substitution seem to have had a range of recipes. Some of them held the strongest version of penal substitution all the way. Whereas John Stott for example uses a recipe that looks something like this:
70% Penal Substitution / Satisfaction at 80% strength
15% Christus Victor
15% Moral Exemplar

What I find interesting about this is the question of where do you draw the line? The UCCF and Evangelical Alliance have gotten quite upset at Chalke for his words strongly attacking views which I would characterize as 90% Penal Substitution at 90% strength. They have insisted that their statement of beliefs teaches Penal Substitution. That assertion I found curious, since this recipe
50% Christus Victor
25% Penal Substitution / Satisfaction at 0% strength (ie totally Satisfaction)
25% Moral Exemplar
would be in clear and entire agreement with their statement of beliefs.

A lot of people on the internet seem confused as to how Chalke can say he adheres to their statement of beliefs. Well the above example demonstrates how. The statement of beliefs makes no distinction between Penal Substitution and Satisfaction - allowing someone who totally rejects Penal Substitution but does hold to Satisfaction to adhere. It also implies that the person should hold at least partially to the Moral Exemplar and Christus Victor models, yet sets no upper limits for the proportion of those used in the recipe. Thus someone who holds strongly to those models and yet partially to the Satisfaction model could easily sign that declaration of beliefs in good faith.

But anyway, I want to observe here that the complexity of the recipes makes drawing a clear line in the sand virtually impossible. A pretty complex formula would be required to state clearly which levels of and combinations of ingredient are and aren't acceptable. Evangelicals span a large range of different recipes.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Mistakes in Interpreting Paul

In the time since the Reformation, the apostle Paul and his theology and especially his letter to the Romans have had a particularly important role to play in Protestant doctrine and teaching. Unfortunately due to a huge level of ignorance about ancient Judaism and about the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures of Paul’s time, a large number of serious and fundamental mistakes were made in interpreting Paul’s writings. Over the last 30 years the study of the ancient social context of Paul’s time has flourished, and many serious errors in our previous interpretations have been identified and corrected. It's pretty hard to exaggerate the cumulative effect of the errors that were made.

Here I give a list of some of the major errors in old interpretations of Romans that historical research has enabled us to identify. With each point I’ll list one or two recent scholarly works on the subject:

1. Paul’s discussion about following Jewish customs (“works of the Torah”) was misunderstood as being about "good works" and “human effort”.
Malina & Pilch “Social Science Commentary on Paul”
Dunn “Romans”

2. “Grace” was mistranslated and misunderstood and quite a complex theological system was developed around it, whereas it should be translated “favour” and understood as part of the ancient favour system.
Harrison “Paul’s Language of Grace in its Graeco-Roman Context”
DeSilva “Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity”

3. “Belief” and “faith” were mistranslated and misunderstood – they should be translated “faithfulness” and understood it as part of the ancient favour system and is not at all in opposition to human effort and deeds.
Campbell “The Quest for Paul’s Gospel”
DeSilva “Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity”

4. The faithfulness “of Jesus” was incorrectly translated as faith “in Jesus”
Hays “The Faith of Jesus Christ”

5. The phrase “Christ died for us” was read as a reference to penal substitution rather than martyrdom.
Gibson ‘Dying Formula’ in “Celebrating Romans” (online here)

6. Paul’s diverse usage of sacrificial metaphors was mistakenly taken literally and all kinds of sacrifices were assumed to work the same way and in a certain way.
Finlan “Cultic Atonement Metaphors” and “Problems With Atonement”.

7. The fact that Paul and Judaism taught an achievable final judgment according to deeds was not realised.
VanLandingham “Judgment and Justification”
Yinger “Paul, Judaism, and Judgment”

8. The Greek concepts of the mind and desires were not understood and so Paul’s self-control discussions were misread as meaning humans have a “sinful nature”.
Stowers “Rereading Romans”

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Recommended Reading on Social Context

Since I keep running into internet posts recommending this book at the moment, I think I will join the club:

Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture
by David DeSilva, 2000

Of all the books on the social, and cultural background to the NT I have read, this one is probably the best overall. What it lacks in detail and scope it makes up for in readability - many of the works written in this field are very academic, but this work is not too technical and should be easy enough for the non-academics to follow.

It is hardly possible to stress enough the importance of social context studies when it comes to researching and understanding the New Testament. It is important that there be good introductions to such an essential area of study, and this book serves that function well. Hence I, like every other man and his dog on the internet at the moment, recommend this book.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A false analogy for the atonement

I don't have to read much in any debate over the atonement before I find someone criticizing the Moral Exemplar view with a criticism which looks something like this:
“It’s a bit like a boy saying to a girl — 'Look how much I love you!' — and then jumping straight off a cliff. That’s an absurd way to view the cross.”

Sometimes it's "jumping in front of a truck", or "throwing himself off a wharf and drowning", but whatever the variant of the analogy, the point is always that the Moral Exemplar view of the atonement is essentially analogous to a pointless suicide.

Now I have read a lot of writings about the atonement, and it's safe to say that I have never ever read anyone who advocates the position that Jesus death was a random suicide done to demonstrate his love.

I was however intrigued to read Rashdall's, "The Idea of Atonement", 1917, written almost a century ago now, in which he advocates a Moral Exemplar view. In an appendix he comments that he has seen writers giving the analogy I mentioned above, and comments that a more appropriate analogy would be where the girl is dying (drowning in his example) and the boy, heedless of his own well-being but out of love for the girl, hurls himself into the water to rescue her and succeeds in doing so but ends up drowning himself. Someone who dies while rescuing another person is an appropriate analogy for the Moral Exemplar view. Someone who commits suicide is not an appropriate analogy. Now hopefully readers can discern a very big difference between a suicide attempt and a rescue attempt! I am left to wonder whether Penal Substitution advocates think a rescue attempt and a suicide attempt are the same thing.

Yet this false analogy has been in circulation for at least 100 years... along with a false description of the Moral Exemplar view that goes "Jesus died to prove his love for us". Yet Penal Substitution advocates often quote that false description side by side with their false suicide analogy which depicts Jesus dying a pointless death that doesn't demonstrate love at all. It's hardly fair to expect from them a perfect definition, but it does seem unreasonable for them to give a description and analogy which so clearly contradict each other.

I suppose at the end of the day, it simply shows that they don't have a clue what they are talking about. And that's the conclusion I keep coming to. The more I talk to people about the atonement, the more it is brought home to me that those who hold Penal Substitution tend to do so simply because they are ignorant of any alternatives. They assume all sorts of Bible verses teach Penal Substitution because "well, what else could they be meaning?" I take the view that when you only know of one possible way of interpreting a verse you are in no position to judge which of the many possible interpretations is the best one!