Friday, June 29, 2007

Book Review: Stephen Finlan

One of the best writers and scholars I have read on the subjects of the atonement is Stephen Finlan. I find that often when Christians come to discuss sacrifices, they make their own assumptions about what sacrifices achieved based on their ideas about Jesus and sacrifices prefiguring Jesus. Then, in a bout of circular reasoning, they turn around and look at the New Testament and interpret every sacrificial referent as being proof of their ideas about the atonement. I found that concepts Finlan introduces helped greatly to clarify the situation and his analysis of the evidence was extremely worthwhile. So if you've occasionally wondered how ancient sacrifices worked, or what Paul was meaning when he referred to them, then you need to read Finlan's work.

Stephen Finlan's first book was called The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors, 2004. I believe this work was largely based on his PHD research on this topic. As such, this book is quite difficult reading, at times I found myself wishing a good editor had been let loose on the work.

In the first part of the book, different ideas about how sacrifices work are analyzed. I found especially interesting three concepts he introduced here and explored:
  1. the idea of looking cross-culturally in the ancient world to see if the writings of other cultures could help enlighten us about how people at that time saw sacrifices as working, and thus other cultures' views could be compared against Israel's.
  2. the idea that within one culture different types of sacrifices could be understood to work differently to each other. Not all sacrifices function in the same manner.
  3. the idea that within a culture the ideas about how sacrifices work and the purpose of sacrifices could change over time, and individuals could disagree over the function of and importance of sacrifices. He traces the typical patterns of thought-change over time among other sacrificial cultures and sees this same development throughout the bible.
In part two of the book he moves to analyzing Paul's use of sacrificial language. Finlan looks at how and why Paul uses sacrificial references in his writings. He finds Paul has a habit of merging sacrificial language with all sorts of other concepts - economics, slavery, judicial etc. Paul's usage of sacrificial language is thus really complicated, and Finlan's complicated writing doesn't make it much easier to understand.

Finlan's second book is called Problems with Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine, 2005. My wish about letting a good editor loose on the previous book has been granted! There is a very strong content overlap between this book and the previous book (as a result, I have a tendency to get confused about which piece of content is in which book). The major difference is that this one is highly readable. The original work has been compacted and slimmed down to a nice little 144 page wonder. Most of the significant content from the previous book is maintained in more concise fashion.

New in this shorter work are discussions about atonement doctrine itself within Christianity. The reader is led through Finlan's conclusions about sacrifices, and introduced to Paul's complex use of them in a much nicer way than the first book did. He looks at all the various atonement motifs and ideas that Paul uses and combines, and analyzes what Paul was meaning by them. His final conclusion is that he does not think Paul was meaning to imply that Christ performed "atonement" in the typical English sense of the word. ie Paul did not think Christ literally atoned for sin in anything close to the way Penal Substitution would suggest. Finlan then looks at what people throughout history have seen Christ as achieving and critiques their view before offering his own (which is the Recapitulation / Incarnation model).

In short, Finlan's book is a very high quality, readable, scholarly work on important subjects of ancient sacrifices and Paul's use of sacrificial language which are normally dealt with very poorly, but which no Christian who is interested in the atonement can afford to be ignorant of. In short, if you want to think you know something about the atonement you really do have to read Problems with Atonement, and if after you've read it, you're keen for more then read The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors as well.

Stephen Harris, one of my favorite bloggers (who really needs to blog more often! ~hint~ ~hint~), has written a lengthy review of Finlan's Problems with Atonement here.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Misuse of Phil 3:9

Philippians 3:9 is definitely up there among the most commonly misused passages in the New Testament.

It's a great example of how a sentence taken out of context can have an apparently obvious meaning in and of itself which bears little relation to what it was meaning in context. It seems a clear and self-explanatory declaration when removed from context, and it also seems a great proof-text for beliefs some people want to have, so it gets used. I can see why it gets used so often: People hear the verse and think it says what they want to say, so they repeat it.

I can understand the popular-level use of passages out of context. But what annoys me is when people who should know better do the same thing. Westerholm in his book Perspectives Old and New on Paul makes gratuitous incorrect use of it. When he lays out his own view of Paul's theology, whenever he feels his view is threatened by some insurmountable objection he simply repeats Phil 3:9 as if it were a charm to make all the evidence against his views miraculously dissapear. He does this about half a dozen times!

Unlike Romans 3, Philippians 3 is not suffering from a ridiculous lack of clarity. There is nothing much really very difficult about the passage, it's just that most people don't actually bother to pay attention to what Paul is saying in it.

The typical misuse that this passage gets put to is to mean something approximately like "righteousness attained from human effort is worthless, true righteousness is given freely by God in response to a lack of human effort". The idea is that Paul is comparing his old Judaism which was a religion of human effort to be righteous, with his new Christianity that by lack of effort attains God's gift of righteousness.

Now, regardless of whether that theological view is correct or incorrect in general, that's obviously not what Paul's actually talking about in this particular passage. When we look at the description of Judaism he gives we find that half of what he says has nothing whatsoever to do with human effort or striving to attain righteousness, but rather is about his Jewish birth - ie he's saying that by the accident of his birth he was born into God's elect people, not by any effort he made he was born as part of the God's chosen nation. Then when we look at the description of his Christian life that follows on from 3:9, do we find a discussion of how he is now not making effort to be righteous and how he is sitting back and letting God's grace work in him? No, the entire passage is about striving to achieve righteousness and 'win' the race, and exerting all possible effort. So far from a Judaism of "effort" being contrasted with a Christian "lack of effort and reliance on grace" that the misuse of Phil 3:9 would lead us to expect, the context discusses a Judaism that relies as much on grace as it does on effort and a Christianity that relies totally on effort. There are plenty of other problems with this misuse of 3:9 given the context, but this is the blindingly obvious one.

In reading the passage carefully to see what it actually does say the key is to pay attention to which contrasts Paul draws and which he does not. The literal contrast being made in verse 9 if you look at the construction of the sentence is the antithesis between Torah-based righteousness "from law" that is currently what Paul has ("my own") and the faithfulness-based righteousness "from God" that Paul desires to have in the future ("make it my own"). In short, he is not happy with the type of righteousness that he currently has which the law approves and instead strives with all his effort to attain the type of righteousness that God approves... which clearly fits with the rest of the context. There is not even the least hints that "human righteousness" is in any way deficient or that "effort" is bad, there is no antithesis drawn between "effort" and "no effort" nor between "human righteousness" and "God's righteousness" as the misuse of the verse would have us believe, that's just not at all what Paul is talking about.

It baffles me that people such as Westerholm can have read the context and simply not see the total incongruence between their use of the verse and the passage in context. How one can read the effort-based striving of Paul for righteousness, and then announce that in this very passage Paul rejects the value of human effort to attain righteousness before God, truly defies my belief.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Misuse of Romans 3:22-26

There is perhaps no passage in the bible that is less clear in meaning than Romans 3:22-26, and I think more ink has probably been dedicated to this passage than any other.

The meaning of every single phrase in Paul's ridiculously long sentence has been seriously contested among scholars. The passage is made up of a long series of prepositional phrases and it is unclear how these are supposed to be interacting with each other. The passage is also packed with important individual words such as "sin", "righteousness", "faith", "grace" which I would guess have been the sole topic of at least one hundred books each. The question of how to translate "propitiation"/"expiation"/"sacrifice of atonement"/"mercy seat"/"conciliation" has also had a ridiculous amount of ink spent on it. The recent controversy over how to translate "faith of Christ" which has spawned dozens of journal articles seems to be simply the icing on the cake.

Because of the total scholarly confusion over the passage, no one has much of an idea how to translate it. Or rather, everyone has ideas but they're all different to each other. Since the passage itself is so unclear and ambiguous, translations and interpretations of it have to be guided by a person's wider theological views. Thus what we get in translations of it is generally a clear statement of the translators theology (or their best guess at Paul's theology), rather than any worthwhile translation of the Greek. Our English translations also have a nasty habit of copying each other when it comes to difficult passages, so generally our bibles render pretty much wholesale the King James translators' guesses.

Now when it comes to using this passage in order to interpret and understand Paul's theology, I am reminded of Augustine's view that we should interpret the difficult passages in light of the clear ones and not vice versa. The thing therefore that causes the most trouble is that the passage looks clear in English. The translators have done a great job of rendering unclear Greek into crystal clear English. This has the unfortunately result that the unsuspecting English reader can think they see in this passage the clearest possible statement of their theology and start using it to interpret other passages.

So whenever I come across a theological argument which starts off by citing Romans 3:22-26 to prove its point, I smile and sit back and mentally change gear knowing I'm reading theological fantasy.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The link between Penal Substitution and final judgment

I think one of the reasons that some Christians see Penal Substitution as such an important doctrine is because they link it to the final judgment. They see deniers of Penal Substitution as denying the very thing necessary for humanity to pass the final judgment. However, I think this link they make between Penal Substitution and final judgment is a faulty one. Penal Substitution need not have any link to the final judgment whatsoever. Here are a couple of example theological scenarios to illustrate.

Example 1. God decides that at the final judgment he wants to send people who had brown hair to heaven and everyone else to hell - that is his arbitrary divine decision which he makes at the beginning of time about how he's going to run the final judgment. Now it also happens to be the case that he is just and must punish sin, so out of love he sends Jesus to be a penal substitute for all humanity, and thus God's justice is dealt with. When it gets to the final judgment, God judges people based on the criteria of hair-color he had decided on earlier. In this scenario, Penal Subsitution is true, but it doesn't have anything to do with the final judgment.

Example 2. God decides that at the final judgment he is going to judge people based on their faith, that's going to form the criteria for the judgment. God doesn't feel any need to be just, and penal substitution is not true. At the final judgment he judges people based on whether or not they had faith. In this scenario the lack of Penal Substitution doesn't stop there being a judgment based on faith.

Example 3. God decides final judgment will be based on virtue, with the 10% most evil humans going to hell and the 90% most virtuous going to heaven. It also happens that he is just and feels the need to punish all sins against him infinitely. He doesn't like the thought of having to punish those 90% of people infinitely, so he sends Jesus as a penal substitute for everyone, thus removing his need to hurt them. At the final judgment he judges according to the criteria of virtue he had decided upon, sending 90% of people to heaven based on their virtue and 10% to hell based on their lack of virtue. Here Penal Substitution is true and is necessary to prevent infinite suffering for those who are virtuous, but they do not pass the final judgment based on the merits of Christ they pass it based on their own merits. Had Christ not done his thing they would be toast, but at the same time it was not Christ that caused them to meet the standard.

I have tried through these examples to explain how Penal Substitution need not have any connection whatsoever to the final judgment. I think some people make assumptions about the connection between the two doctrines and then when Penal Substitution is denied they feel particularly threatened because of the connection they have established in their mind between the two doctrines. In other words, they have made Penal Substitution artificially important in their own minds by mis-associating it with important concepts about final judgment, and thus a denial of Penal Substitution strikes them harder than it really should.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A spectator's view of the atonement

I was bemused to see a poster on the internet who supports Penal Substitutionary atonement write:
Christus Victor sometimes comes across to me a bit like this - "there was a deadly posionous snake outside your house, but its okay, Jesus killed it for you!" To which the reply from most people is, "Whatever! I wasn't aware of the danger beforehand and now you're telling me that the danger is gone now anyway!"
I thought that was a prime instance of the pot calling the kettle black - I have often had the same thought about Penal Substitutionary Atonement. But I think PSA looks even worse when you look at it like this, because it's not a deadly snake that gets killed but rather God kills himself... "there was a deadly God outside your house, but it's okay, he killed himself for you." To which most people are going to not only point out that you're telling them about a danger that is no longer present (like above) and also point out that God sounds pretty deranged.

But anyway, I think the whole "so what?" response that people can have is a fair one to consider. If Jesus simply achieved some good stuff and solved a problem people weren't aware they had in the first place, then naturally they are going to be inclined to respond with "so who cares, why are you bothering to tell me?" Ultimately the relevance of atonement models is rooted in the response they demand upon the person hearing the message, whether that be repentance or good deeds or what, because if Jesus fixed a problem we didn't know we had then that's nice but not necessarily worth knowing about.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Problems with defining Penal Substitution

I have been musing recently on the question of the definition of "Penal Substitution". What are the key concepts that by being present make something "Penal Substitution" and by their absence make it not be that? There are two main dangers with definitions - too narrow and it applies to nothing, too wide and it applies to everything. Balancing these two and isolating a useful definition is often difficult.

In one recent popular work the definition of PS given is that Jesus "suffer[ed] instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin." That looks okay at first glance, but the more I look at it the more problems I am seeing with it.

The first two things I notice is that it says nothing about eternal salvation or faith. Now I suppose it's true that you could theoretically have penal substitution without those things, say where a court fined a man for stealing and his friend paid his fine for him. In such a circumstance there is substitution of punishment (though it's informal substitution, rather than court sanctioned substitution - does this matter?) but eternal salvation is not involved, and the man does not really require faith in his friend or belief or trust or assurance in the efficaciousness of substitutionary payment in order for the friend's payment be effective. However Penal Substitution as a doctrine involves faith and eternal salvation in virtually all explanations I've ever heard of it, so leaving those out of the definition perhaps isn't a good idea... without them something can be "penal" and "substitutionary" but not really "Penal Substitution" as we know it.

Next, I have an issue with "instead of us the death" in the definition. All Christians will die physically, just like any other humans. Christ died physically. He didn't die "instead of us", since that would imply he died and we don't. If something other than physical death is meant it needs to be specified - as it stands, the provided definition is false.

I also take issue with "death, punishment and curse". It's like they couldn't decide quite what they believed so they tossed a whole lot of stuff in. The ambiguity and unclarity about what precisely Christ is suffering on our behalf is unhelpful. Are we meant to take it that he suffers three quite separate things on our behalf - death, punishment and curse - are we punishmed for sinfulness three times over in different ways? Or is it meant he suffered the "punishment of death" or perhaps "a curse invoked as punishment"? Studying the ancient ideas about curses has made me realise that punishment and curses were pretty different to each other. Yet this definition stuffs them together as if they were the same thing, or implies that penal substitution can teach it is any of them (though it says 'and', not 'or'), or that people who hold to penal substitution are confused about which of them it is.

Also missing from this definition, it seems to me, is the idea that God as a source of the punishment(s) that Christ is rescuing us from. ie the idea of us being saved from God's wrath, or God's justice, or God's punishment is missing. It is just a punishment in general that we're described as saved from, not specifically God's punishment. As such, this definition is broad enough that the ancient "Ransom From Satan" model meets the definition. Whoops. I think that definitely shows the definition is too broad. Interestingly, the same book from which this faulty definition of PS comes identifies a passage in Eusebius that is teaching Ransom from Satan as teaching Penal Substitution.

I have been trying myself a few times to list a clear checklist of ideas which comprise penal substitution and run into difficulties. I've jotted down sixteen or so ideas that together comprise Penal Substitutionary Atonement and are necessary to differentiate it from Ransom from Satan and other views. I intended them to be one short phrase or sentence each, and most of them are. But two of the most important ideas on the list which are key in differentiating PS from other models, I have yet to work out how to express in under half a page. So I have so far not succeeded in achieving definitional perfection.

More and more I am coming to realize that there is a very important difference between day-to-day penal and substitutionary situations like my analogy of paying a friend's fine, compared to the Doctrine Of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Of Post-Reformation Christianity. I think that is highlighted in the Ransom from Satan comparison - things can include penal and substitutionary thinking and ideas without being Penal Substitution.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Eusebius' summary of salvation history

Even when you are used to them, the early Christian post-biblical writings tend to make for difficult reading. They have a tendency to not be very succinct or clear and to discuss every point in the context of half a dozen obscure Old Testament quotes understood allegorically. It makes it passages which are clear and concise all the nicer. Here is one such passage from Eusebius, spelling out the Christian system of salvation.
Eusebius, ~320AD, Proof of the Gospel (Demonstratio Evangelica) Book 8, intro:
I have already, you will remember, accounted for the Christ coming in these last times and not long ago, but I will here shortly repeat myself.

In the old days the souls of men were tyrannized over by squalid folly and sin, and a strange godlessness ruled over all human life, so that men were like wild and untamed beasts. They knew nothing of cities, or constitutions, or laws, nor anything honourable or progressive; they set no store on arts and sciences, they had no conception of virtue and philosophy, they lived in lonely deserts, in mountains, caves, and villages; they preyed on their neighbours like robbers, and gained their livelihood mostly by tyrannizing over those weaker than themselves. But though they did not know the Supreme God, nor the path of true religion, yet inspired by conceptions of natural religion they agreed in self-taught principles about the existence of a divine power, regarded it as and called it God, and considered the name one of salvation and beneficence, but they were not yet able to realize anything beyond a Being transcending the world of visible nature. Wherefore some of them----

"worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator; and they became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; and they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like unto corruptible man, and to birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things."

And so they made images of their kings and tyrants long dead, and paid them divine honours, and by imputing divinity to them sanctified their wicked and lustful deeds as works of the gods.

How could the wise and good word of Christ, instilling the quintessence of wisdom, be in harmony with men in that condition, and involved in such depths of evil? So that holy and all-seeing Justice, pruning them like a wild and dangerous wood, now afflicted them by floods, now by fire, now delivered them to wars, butchery and sieges at one another's hands, urged on as they were to war against each other by those very daemons whom they regarded as their gods, with the result that human life in those days admitted no neighbourly intercourse, mutual association or union. Those were few, as might be expected in such days, and easily numbered, who, as the Hebrew oracles tell us, were found to be godly; with such, Justice met by the use of oracles and theophanies, she took them by the hand and cared for them with the elementary but helpful Mosaic legislation.

But when at last by the legislation laid down for them, and by the later teaching of the prophets poured out like a sweet smell upon all men, the character of the people became civilized, and constitutions and legal systems were established among most nations, and the name of virtue and philosophy became popularly honoured, as if their old savagery had ceased and their wild and cruel life were transferred to something gentler: then at length, at the fitting time, the perfect and heavenly teacher of perfect and heavenly thoughts and teaching, the leader to the true knowledge of God, God the Word, revealed Himself, at the time announced for His Incarnation, preaching the Gospel of the Father's love, the same for all nations, whether Greeks or Barbarians, to every race of men, moving all to a common salvation in God, promising the truth and light of true religion, the kingdom of Heaven, and eternal life to all.

Such, then, is my account of the reasons why the Christ of God shone forth on all men now and not long ago.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Traditions, Globalisation, Indoctrination and Zeal

Each Christian denomination has what I would call it's own tradition - its own set of distinctive beliefs, practices and ideas which characterize it and which it passes onto the next generation. Thus there is the Roman Catholic tradition, the Reformed tradition, the Baptist tradition, the Eastern Orthodox tradition... etc.

Historically the interactions between different Christian traditions have been quite limited. Generally, for example: If you were born a Lutheran you would die a Lutheran, and likewise for all the other traditions. Depending on where in the world you were born, and what your parents happened to think, you would grow up within a particular tradition. As such you would be taught their views on doctrine, their practices. You would be provided by your tradition with a set of saints or heroes of the faith. You would inherit with this tradition a particular doctrinal enemy(s) - a short list of one or two other traditions whom your tradition had historically 'fought' with on doctrinal or practical issues. And thus life went on. Few were the people who journeyed far outside the boundaries of own traditions. For the most part, this was unavoidable. It was, for example, pretty impossible for a person living in 18th century England to learn about or attend an Eastern Orthodox church.

However, I am inclined to feel the notion of traditions is rather crazy. To give an example, I understand one of the major differences between Luther and Zwingli was over the issue of the Lord's Supper and to what extent the elements really are the things they represent. As a result, two different traditions stem from that point, one following Luther's view and one Zwingli's. But what are the chances that a person born into Luther's tradition would happen to agree with Luther? Or what are the chances that a person born into Zwingli's tradition would happen to agree with Zwingli? Imagine if all subsequent people born, instead of being born into one of the two traditions at random by an accident of birth, were to seriously study the issue for themselves and then choose who they agreed with. There is no reason to think (short of some sort of extreme divine providence) that the people who would have agreed with Luther would actually be born Lutherans rather than into a family of Zwingli's tradition. As such, having two traditions ends up being somewhat of a nonsense - each tradition is filled with people who would quite possibly be in the other tradition if they studied the issues for themselves. But each tradition continues its theology and teaches its viewpoint onto its next generation nonetheless. The tradition continues only if it indoctrinates the next generation in its viewpoint and doesn't let them study the issues for themselves and go to the group they agree with most.

But with modern globalisation and the internet, things have changed. I live on an island in the pacific ocean and am a Baptist by birth, but it doesn't stop me discussing theories of the atonement with Reformed believers in England, nor from talking with Eastern Orthodox believers in America about the writings of the Church Fathers, or discussing general matters of theology on forums open to the entire world (or at least the English speaking, internet using, part of it) on a day-to-day basis. Likewise, delivers to my door books by Lutheran theologians, Roman Catholic scholars, Anglican bishops, Russian Orthodox writers and so forth. Never in the history of the world has it been easier to learn about other Christian traditions, read their very best writings, and dialog with people from those traditions on an ongoing basis.

I love discussing ideas with Christians of other denominations and hearing viewpoints I have never considered or heard before. I find hearing other viewpoints broadens my understanding immensely and stretches my mind and gives me a far better understanding of topics than I could ever get from one tradition or viewpoint alone. I love exploring different people's theological paradigms, seeing how they interpret the bible, how their theological ideas interact, how they practically apply their ideas. I'm a big picture person - I am interested in knowing as much of the wider picture as possible, as many different ideas as possible and seeing how they fit together. I enjoy tracing the historical development of doctrines, looking at the history of different traditions, seeing how their views changed over time and learning why they decided to believe and teach the things they do. I firmly believe that there is great benefit to be had in this. After all, given the number of different Christian traditions there are, the chances of the one you happen to have been born into (or converted into if your family wasn't Christian) being the right, true and correct one, seem minimal. And even if, by lucky chance you happen to be a part of the most-correct tradition, there is surely always room for improvement, and getting ideas from other traditions about what might be able to be improved within your own tradition is surely worthwhile.

But on a regular basis I am frustrated to encounter people who are zealous for their own tradition of their birth that they have been heavily indoctrinated in. These people are often extremely well-read... in their own tradition's writings. They have never encountered any serious arguments against their position, because they have never read any quality writings from any other traditions. Since they are well read in their own tradition's propaganda, they are utterly convinced their view is correct.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

"Sins" != "Guilt" of sins

An observation someone made to me yesterday which I thought was very insightful is that Protestant Christians have a tendency when reading their bible to mentally replace the word "sins" whenever they see it with the phrase "guilt of sins" with the emphasis on the guilt. To give an example then, when the bible says things like "Christ takes away our sins"... The good little conservative protestant is going to obediently add the word "guilt" into the phrase as they read and see Christ taking away the guilt of our sins, and thus mentally add "suffering the punishment we deserved, expiating that guilt and propitiating God and thus achieving forgiveness for sin." Thus the word "sins" has been mentally changed to refer primarily to guilt, which has then opened the door wide to pouring a whole truckload of ideas about guilt into the text. Even though the New Testament virtually never mentions "guilt", it gets read into it constantly, as "sins" is read as "guilt of sins"

It struck me that such a reading stands in contrast to what I think the bible is normally meaning by "sins" - which is "sinfulness". If you read "sins" as referring to sinfulness, then phrases that Christ takes away our sins read quite differently. They are then talking about Christ causing a change in how we live, so that we live righteously instead of sinfully, that our day-to-day lives are actually changed in reality so that our actions, deeds, character, and life becomes righteous and pleasing to God instead of sinful.

There's a world of difference between the ideas of (a) causing an actual change in our lives away from sin and toward righteousness so that in the future we are free from actual sinfulness, versus (b) the idea of dealing with the guilt of our past sins. The fairly vast conceptual gulf between the two means that one and the same instance of the word "sins" occuring in the bible cannot really mean both at once. Sure, the bible could potentially teach both - sometimes teaching one and sometimes the other, but it would be stretching things to think it was teaching both at the same time in the same sentence or the same word.

My concern is that very often I see Christians reading "sins" as "guilt of sins" and as a result misreading (IMO) a passage that is talking about sinfulness and changing character rather than guilt and punishment. This occurs especially in debates about the atonement where passages talking about the removal of sin are cited as "proof" that the bible teaches Penal Substitution - yet such proof-texts rely on the reader adding the word "guilt" into the passage in the first place. To tell whether it's better to read the passage as talking about the removal of the "guilt" of sins, or to read the passage as being about the removal of "sinfulness" a greater context and careful study is needed. As a result such passages in and of themselves do not provide the proof of Penal Substitution that the people referring to them seem to see them providing, becuase they are adding the concept of "guilt" into the text and then seeing it there.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Church Fathers on the Atonement

I have always been particularly interested in seeing what the theology of the Christian Church of the first 500 years was (in particular the parts of it that spoke Greek and so read the bible in their native language), and in understanding how they viewed the atonement. To that end over the last several years I have read most of the writings of the major and minor church writers from this period and read a dozen or so scholarly works on the subject giving both overviews and detailed analyses of the writings from this period. I was and am particularly interested in focusing on and seeing how each Father understands the work of Christ, what they saw Christ as achieving, and how that fitted in with their scheme of salvation. It was and still is my belief that it is extremely unlikely that the apostles failed to pass their ideas on to the succeeding generations, and thus seeing what these later Christians believed and teach in their voluminous surviving writings is a useful tool to help understand the New Testament.

It turns out that the writers from this period teach quite strongly various views of the atonement, and they are Ransom from Satan, Moral Exemplar, Christus Victor, and Recapitulation. What is not in that list, of course, is Satisfaction and Penal Substitution. Credit is of course commonly given to Anselm in the 11th century for his invention and popularisation of Satisfaction in his work "Why God became Man", which is an interesting read as an example of Scholastic Theology - he attempts show that a person sitting in their armchair at home could use pure reason to derive the existence of God, the need for Christ to die, and how the atonement worked. Anselm gave a critique of one version of the popular atonement model of Ransom from Satan, and in its place explained a full and complete Satisfaction model. Arguably Anselm did not invent the Satisfaction model from scratch, and perhaps up to 500 years earlier some of the ideas related to it can been seen as present in some writers of the Western Latin tradition of which he was a part. However he was definitely the first to give it a full and complete explanation, and also represents the point of turning in popular Latin Christian thought away from Ransom-From-Satan and toward a Satisfaction view.

Over the next five centuries, as society changed, the Satisfaction model underwent gradual changes. So, instead of being couched as Anselm had done, in an analogy with Feudal lords demanding recompense for their dishonour, it became couched in a judicial analogy with a just judge demanding punishment for a crime. Similar, but slightly different - in Anselm's version there doesn't really have to be punishment, only appropriate payment given which can involve perfect obedience rather than any form of punishment. Thus by 1600 or so "Penal Substitution" as it was now called was the dominant view of the atonement among the masses of conservative Western Christianity. Notably Anselm had written in Western Latin, so his ideas had never influenced the Greek Eastern part of the church who never held anything remotely like Satisfaction or Penal Substitution.

I am inclined to take the view that this historical evolution of Christian thought is the single strongest and most compelling evidence against Penal Substitutionary atonement. Namely its virtually complete absense in the Greek Christian writings of the period 100-500AD seems pretty decisive. If the apostles taught Penal Substitution as a central part of their gospel, then it seems almost entirely inconceivable that the generations that came after them and spoke the same language had, worldwide, managed to universally forget the major and central part of the gospel and replace it with something else entirely.

Origen, for example in his basically systematic theology called "On the First Principles of the Christian Faith" written ~230AD manages to totally fail to mention Penal Substitution, but does make extensive mention of a Moral Exemplar view as being what Christians teach. Irenaeus, a missionary to France writing ~180AD gives all sorts of imagery for the atonement that has scholars struggling to work out whether he was teaching Recapitulation or Ransom for Satan, but he certainly wasn't teaching anything remotely close to Penal Substitution. Justin Martyr, a Christian Philosopher living in Rome, in his "Defenses of Christianity" written in 150AD manages to not mention of Penal Substitutionary atonement despite talking about the core Christian doctrines, and he is widely regarded as the first post-biblical Christian writer to clearly explain and teach the Ransom from Satan view. Eusebius in his almost systematic theology "Proof of the Gospel" written ~310AD teaches Moral Exemplar pretty clearly. Athanasius' fairly extensive treatise on the atonement about the same time is widely regarded as the clearly example of teaching Recapitulation.

In short, we find a variety of atonement theories taught in the first 500 years of Greek Christianity. We also find Penal Substitution very absent, and glaringly absent in the places and writings we would most expect it to be if these Christians held anything remotely approaching modern views. But of course, they did not hold modern views. They didn't hold to original sin; they endorsed free will extremely firmly; they endorsed extremely firmly that the acts of humans could make them righteous before God; and they taught a final judgment according to one's life and character. Interestingly the views of atonement that they taught (apart from Moral Exemplar) had no connection whatsoever with causing humans to attain a positive final judgment by God - Ransom from Satan, Christus Victor and Recapitulation has the similarity that the "problem" they give a "solution" to has nothing whatsoever to do with whether humans go to hell or heaven (Recapitulation is about making there be a resurrection and not annihilation upon death, and the other two are about defeating Satan).

I consider these facts to be easily the clearest and most definitive evidence against holding a view of Penal Substitution. It is a modern doctrine which has evolved over the course of comparatively recent centuries and was not taught in the period of 100-500 in Greek Christianity. If we think we can find it in the bible we are therefore probably kidding ourselves, since those native Greek speaking Christians who lived with the same culture, in the same world, with the same language as the apostles never saw it as present in the same bible that people today claim to find it in.

Now of course, when confronted with this evidence the response of many Evangelicals is disbelief - "that just CAN'T be true!" The results tend to be amusingly sad, because they are sure they must be able to find Penal Substitution in those writings if they look hard enough, so they go off and search through these writings they know nothing about until they find a paragraph that's ambiguous enough that they can read Penal Substitution into it out of ignorance if they try. Thus we end up with moronic statements like "the following Fathers taught penal substitution" followed by a cite of five ambiguous paragraphs in the works of writers renowned for other views of the atonement. They don't seem to realise that even if they find a dozen paragraphs that clearly teach Penal Substiution it is still irrelevant - because we are talking about a collection of works that are on the order of 50,000 pages all up. To find only a dozen mentions of Penal Substitution in a collection of writings of that volume is to simply prove that these writers placed virtually no value whatsoever on the idea. If modern Christians mentioned Ransom from Satan, Recapitulation, Christus Victor and Moral Exemplar in 20% of all the paragraphs they wrote on Christianity, and Penal Substitution in 0.001% of their paragraphs, then it wouldn't take a genius to figure out that their core doctrines were not Penal Substitution.

But I have issues with the fact that these people think they can simply cite a paragraph from deep in the bowels of works they have not read, by authors they've spent no time trying to understand, and claim it teaches Penal Substitution, when in fact the authors held none of the theology necessary for a Penal Substitutionary framework, and the paragraph is not intending to say anything close to what they get out of it. This has been brought to my attention because apparently the recent Pierced For Our Transgressions book does this... no doubt the authors trawled through 20th century Evangelical apologetics and harvested all the misguided citations of the "Church Fathers advocating Penal Substitution" that they could and said "Look! They believed what we believed". I'm sure it looks convincing to people who have never read any of the Church Fathers writings. For those of us who've read lots of them, it's hilarious. Some of the names on their list are particularly ridiculous. "Athanasius" for example apparently taught Penal Substitution - is this the same Athanasius who's famous for his advocation of Recapitution? Why yes it is. "Gregory Nazianzus"? The same Gregory Nazianzus who explicitly rejects the possibility of the atonement as targeted at God in another one of his works? Why yes it is. "Justin Martyr"? The same Justin Martyr who's one of my favourites? Yup... apparently I hadn't spotted that "clear" statement of Penal Substitution in the middle of one of my favorite authors. Their citations might look remotely plausible to the ignorant, but they have those of us who know our stuff rolling on the floor laughing.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Atonement again

All Christians everywhere have taught the Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection were for a purpose, that they “saved” man. This is called the doctrine of the atonement. What Christians have not agreed on over the centuries is what precisely Christ accomplished, or how, or why. Here are some of the views that have been held, with approximate dates as to when they were invented and popular:

Recapitulation (First Millennia AD)
Humanity’s problem was that sin separated us from God, causing death due to lack of “participation” in God’s immortality. Christ in becoming human and living a human life, combined the natures of God and human in himself, thereby spiritually reuniting man and God, and thus saving us from death.

Christus Victor (First Millennia AD)
Christ “fought” against all the different “powers” that hold humanity in hostage (Satan, death, sin, disease, poverty etc), and “defeated” them. He defeated sickness by healing people, he defeated poverty by helping the poor, he defeated the devil by casting out spirits, he defeated death by being resurrected etc. In this way he waged war against these things, both defeating them himself and inspiring us to do the same and not fear them.

Ransom from Satan (First Millennia AD)
The souls of sinners are under Satan’s power, so in order to rescue us, Christ offered himself to Satan in exchange for our souls. But since Christ himself had no sin, Satan was unable to hold Christ within his power and God resurrected him from death. This view is depicted by CS Lewis in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Moral Exemplar (First Millennia AD)
Christ through his life set an example to inspire and and for us to follow. Through his teachings taught us how to live and what was important. Through his death demonstrated faithfulness to God and his teachings becoming a martyr and setting an example. Through his resurrection he showed that death was not the end and that God approves of those who live like Jesus.

Satisfaction (1100-1500AD)
God’s honour was offended by our sin, therefore being infinitely honourable he had to inflict infinite punishment on us to preserve his honour. However through Christ’s perfect obedience to the point of death, God’s honour is restored, and we no longer need to be punished. (Developed to replace Ransom from Satan)

Penal Substitution (1500AD onward)
God is just so he must punish our sins by sending us to hell. Christ died taking on himself our sins/punishment, thereby allowing God to forgive us. (Developed from Satisfaction)

Governmental View (1600-1900AD)
Christ died as a public demonstration by God as to the seriousness of sin, and because it is right that there be punishment for sin. Our sin wasn’t actually transferred to Christ. (A version of Penal Substitution)

The two views most popular today in Western Christianity are Penal Substitution and a variant of Christus Victor / Moral Exemplar which is often labelled the Liberation view. (Eastern Christians hold to a blend of Recapituation, Christus Victor, Ransom from Satan, and Moral Exemplar)

Penal Substitution says that God is just and he has to punish sin. Since we are all sinners, he had to send us to hell. So he transferred our sins onto Christ on the cross. Since Christ suffered in our place God can justly forgive us. This view has been the most popular view among conservative Western Christians for the past 500 years. If you listen to a Gospel presentation today or read a tract, they’ll probably take this view. Most Protestants have had it explained to them that this view is what the bible teaches, and been taught how to understand every part of Christianity in light of the fact that Christ died for our sins, and know that people need to accept God’s forgiveness and believe in Christ in order to avoid hell.

Over the last century there’s been a lot of discussion among Christians about the atonement, and the idea of Penal Substitution has received a lot of criticism. Some people argue that it depicts an unloving God who cannot forgive people without punishing someone. Others complain that the idea of transferring our sin to Christ is nonsense and you can’t transfer sin. They think it is unjust for an innocent man to suffer the punishment of the guilty. They say that the importance given to his death reduces his life into insignificance. They think that the emphasis put on believing the gospel reduces the importance of morality into insignificance. They think that Penal Substitution ignores the importance that Jesus puts on helping those who are in need.

As a result, there are two quite different views of the atonement in Christianity today. There are those who accept Penal Substitution, and those who reject it. The people who reject it do not all hold to a well-defined, clear, and named version of the atonement. But they tend to have a lot of ideas in common. I like to call their view the Liberation view, though it is often just called Christus Victor or Moral Exemplar.

The Liberation view stresses the love of God towards those who are suffering and ensnared in sin. They say that what Jesus came to save us from were sinful ways of living that bring hurt to us. Jesus hence healed the sick, helped the poor, and brought outcasts back into society. Hence the mission of the church in the world is to bring real-life transformation to people. The liberation view focuses on this-world salvation just as much as next-world salvation. They see the Church’s role as being two-fold to bring personal moral transformation – changing people’s character for the better, and social transformation – changing society for the better.

The Liberation view still believes in the afterlife, and believes in heaven and hell and a final judgment. There is an emphasis on the importance of individual goodness and faithfulness in achieving a postive final judgment, so discipleship and sanctification is emphasised. Thus they focus of how to change people’s lives, on social justice, and discipleship. The large number of biblical scholars in recent years who have distanced themselves from the Penal Substitutionary view and adopted some form of Liberation/Christus Victor is really quite remarkable. There is increasing scholarly dissatisfaction with Reformation theology in general and the Liberation model looks like its the best ship to jump to.

There is quite a large range among adherents to the Liberation view, from those who think that Christ on the cross caused a cosmic defeat of evil and through the life of Christ God waged supernatural war against evil powers, through to those who reject such supernaturalistic notions of evil and think Christ's social teachings were simply about combating normal (but real) evil and sufferings in peoples lives and bringing personal and social transformation to the world. The common factor is that God was at work in Christ to oppose evil and help humanity.