Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hebrews' allegory of Christ as Priest

The writer of Hebrews presents an allegory that sees Christ achieving what the sacrificial system would have ideally liked to do but couldn't. The new covenant, as a result of Christ, has not only accomplished everything the old covenant did, but surpassed it in every way. I think such an allegory is not really the best place to be looking to learn how the new covenant actually works. But reservations aside, since I have been asked what I think the writer of Hebrews thinks about the atonement...

The first atonement motif in Hebrews is in chapter 2 and talks about him defeating the devil and freeing us from the fear of death, though this motif does not seem to reoccur. So I'm going to put it to one side.

The most common atonement motif is of Christ as an intercessor who submits prayers and supplications to God like an old testament priest. It is in this context that it is said Christ as priest submits to God "gifts and sacrifices" (5:1, 8:3, 9:9) along with his supplications. The idea of sacrifices as gifts to God in order to please him and thus have him view the petitions and prayers favorably was extremely common in the ancient world. The pleasant smell of incense and the giving of gifts other than animals were understood to function in much the same way, thus aiding the petitions of the worshipers.

In this sense in trying to "work out" the allegory, we could say that the writer sees Christ's life of obedience to God and his faithfulness to death doing God's will forms a pleasing gift to God, a sacrificial offering of himself and his life to the will of God ("I have come to do your will" 10:7-9), thus pleasing God and strengthening his petitions.

A second and different function of sacrifices is discussed later in Hebrews - that of purification. In the ancient world the life-force of of pure animals was considered to be able to purify that which it touched by virtue of its own purity. Thus comments are made about how things are washed clean and purified through blood, as if blood was a detergent. The Mosaic law contains long descriptions of how and where to spread the blood to achieve purification. Furthermore the eating of the holy meat of the sacrifice was also believed to bring purification.

Christ gets paralleled to this notion of sacrificial purification. He has achieved some sort of purification that is better and bigger than what the sacrifices could achieve. But how it works is somehow different - we neither are literally washed in Christ's blood nor eat his flesh (well there's the Eucharist, but it's not mentioned). The mechanics of how he achieved this purification are not specified unambiguously or clearly. It is therefore possible to link any atonement mechanism into this.

The mention of a defeat of Satan right near the start of Hebrews would suggest that Christus Victor or Ransom from Satan might provide the correct mechanism for understanding the author's thought here. On the other hand, what is occurring here is sacrificial supersession - ie the sacrificial system is being superseded and replaced by something else. Since cultural studies have indicated that sacrificial systems seem to be always superseded in cultures by morality and ethics this would seem to suggest an Ethical or Moralistic mechanism of atonement is most likely in mind. Throughout the rest of the new testament there is clear evidence of moral living as superseding sacrifices. The most famous being of course Rom 12:1 "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship", but there are heaps of others.

It would be passing strange if the author of Hebrews saw CV or Ransom as providing the mechanism of supersession when the rest of the NT Christians thought moral transformation to living a moral life in obedience to the teachings of Christ and the imitation of his life was what brought about purification and hence superceded the sacrificial system. These ideas seem to make sense of Hebrews when applied to it. The author of Hebrews also seems to have a tendency to draw moral conclusions from sacrificial sentences, implying the same idea of morality as achieving purification and thus having done away with the need for sacrifices.

Labels: ,


Blogger Bryan L said...


Thanks for the lengthy response. After reading your post a few times let me see again if I understand you correctly. You seem to be saying that Christ’s death was not sacrificial (in a sin offering or atonement for sin kind of way) and does not provide purification or forgiveness of sins. And if anything, Hebrews is focusing on his life of obedience to God as a gift (or sacrifice but not in a sin offering way) to God that please him and enables him to better respond to Jesus’ petitions for us. And you see Hebrews primarily as picturing Jesus as an intercessor (asking God to do stuff for us) and you think the intercessor motif should control how we should read the priestly language, so that we see the purpose of the priestly language not to focus on the priest providing sacrifices for sins but instead to focus on the priest petitioning God for our needs.

And are you also saying that Jesus death wasn’t in fact the final sacrifice for sin (or that matter any sacrifice for sin) but instead the sacrificial system was actually in the process of being replaced with ethics and morality (which normally happens in cultures), so that we through, our own ethical/moral living, provide our own purification from sins? And so Christ never actually provides purification for our sins but instead we do?

Am I reading you correctly?

Bryan L

Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, I think you have aptly grasped my view. Although I have some reservations about saying things like "Christ's death was not sacrificial" or "Christ never actually provides purification for our sins but instead we do", because these statements are quite open to misunderstanding.

The author of Hebrews as best I understand him thinks Jesus "purifies us" as a "sacrifice" because his life, teachings, death and resurrection, lead to us following his teachings and purifying ourselves, and in this sense his sacrificing of his life for his cause can be paralleled to a purification sacrifice because it achieves purification, even though the mechanism by which it works is dissimilar - we are not literally drenched in Christ's blood, purification is 'spiritual' through imitation of a moral life rather than 'physical' through blood purification etc.

Like Paul, the author of Hebrews seems to think that Christ through his teachings, example, prayers and Spirit empowers believers and changes their hearts leading them to lead lives in obedience to God in a way they couldn't have done on their own.

Blogger Bryan L said...

Thanks Andrew for the clarification.

I don't think that you'll be that surprised to know that I disagree with you and that I do see the author of Hebrews (as well as other authors in the NT) speaking of Christ's death as effecting purification/forgiveness from sin, and I don't think he believes or is arguing that our moral acts purify us. But it is nice to know a bit about where you are coming from in this discussion.
I don't think either of us are that interested in spending much time defending our views or getting into any real debate on the issue (at least I'm not).

But I would be interested in hearing how it is that you came to your beliefs on this issue. Pardon me for saying this, but it could appear to those on the outside that you first started with disliking the idea of Jesus' death as a sacrifice for others' sins or somewhere along the line the idea became unpalatable for you so you began looking for alternate ways of reading the texts (I don't think this is invalid or necessarily wrong as I believe all read the Bible this way on certain issues). I'm sure though that you probably wouldn't say this, so what then would be your reasons (or the path you took) for coming to the views you hold and for reading the texts the way you do?

Thanks, and I appreciate you taking the time to dialog on this issue and explain your views.

Bryan L

Blogger Andrew said...

I don't think that you'll be that surprised to know that I disagree with you and that I do see the author of Hebrews (as well as other authors in the NT) speaking of Christ's death as effecting purification/forgiveness from sin,

~smiles~ Well, I of course see these authors speaking of these things too. It's not a matter of not seeing passages, but of trying to understand what they mean by their words.

I would be interested in hearing how it is that you came to your beliefs on this issue.

Through years of reading books about these issues and biblical writings, and studying the bible, and discussing these things with other people. Studying atonement theology has become a particular love of mine. I enjoy analyzing different people's theologies and seeing what makes them tick, both for the NT writers and the church fathers. Yes, I don't always personally agree with their theologies (eg lots of the Church Fathers thought that Jesus literally paid his soul to Satan to free humanity.) but nonetheless I am interested in studying what they thought. Since I study the theologies of so many different people, it's obviously impossible to agree with all of them. For me the questions of what the person whos writings I am analyzing actually believes, and of whether I agree with them, are two entirely different questions. Exegesis is about trying to understand what the writer thinks, regardless of whether I agree with their views.

Certainly my personal questioning of the validity of the logic of some popular modern presentations of the atonement has fueled my interest in the subject. And over time as I have learned more about what the ancient writers thought, and about the subject in general, I have developed very critical views regarding a lot of modern theological ideas which claim to be based in exegesis.

Blogger Scott said...

I certainly loved you post. Please check out my site.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home