Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The methodology of exegeting atonement doctrine

I have found that when it comes to atonement, a lot of people have been taught ideas about how it works. If anything causes them to doubt what they have been told, they then go to the bible and say "Is there biblical support for what I have been taught?"

That question is a trick question. Because looking through the bible, if you look long enough, you will find passages that agree close-enough to whatever you have been taught. It is simply a matter of statistics. If you check enough passages they will eventually find some that can be interpreted in agreement with you theory. People are especially psychologically gifted at ignoring passages that disagree with their ideas and focus only one ones that agree. I find that once people have found 'proof' in the bible of the theology they have been taught they will hold it up to doubters and say "look, can't you see? It's so obvious!" It's always obvious, once you've done a careful selection of precisely the verses that most agree with your view, interpreted them in the way that seems best to you, and shunted all the evidence to one side.

I think a major turning point in my own psychology when I came to study the theories of atonement was when I put them all mentally on a level playing field. Instead of saying to myself "can I prove that this particular one is biblical?", I instead said "Well person A thinks that one is biblical and can 'prove' it with biblical verses, and person B thinks that different one is biblical and can 'prove' it with different verses, and person C thinks a different one again is biblical and can prove it with different verses. So how can I know who is right?" I was exposed to different people who were convinced that different and mutually exclusive views of the atonement were biblical and they could all prove it from the bible.

It was that which really made me do a mental gear change. Christians at different times and places in history had been absolutely convinced that certain models of the atonement were the biblical model, but had believed in differing models. Funnily enough, these different Christians seemed always convinced that the model they had been taught was the true biblical. For me I realized that if I really wanted to understand what the Bible writers themselves thought about the atonement I needed a major methodological change. It was clearly not enough to just take what I'd been taught, ask myself if I could find some bible verses that seemed to agree, and then be convinced I held biblical truth. Getting to the truth was clearly much more complicated and messy. Even if multiple atonement models were true or partially true, clearly when different Christians thought different models were the main central model, they could not all be right. In fact, at least all but one of the groups had to be wrong.

Trying to analyze and answer the question of which model of the atonement is really the central biblical one has taken me years. It is a complex matter of studying a whole lot of different subject areas, comparing multiple competing theories against a vast amount of data, and paying as much attention to evidence that disagrees with a viewpoint as is paid to evidence that supports a viewpoint. After years of study during which time I've become fairly knowledgeable on the historical Jesus, Pauline theology, the Early Church Fathers, and the NT writings and systematic theology in general in the process of trying to understand the atonement, and I've come to various conclusions on the subject of atonement doctrine.

But the internet is great for people saying to me in forums "do you believe X?" and I say "Well, actually I don't think that's biblical", and they say "But verses X, Y, & Z say so! Can't you see? It's obvious! You must be blind if you can't see it! You're denying the bible!" The problem I often have is that there's no simple way to explain to people why I hold the views I do. There's no way to compress years of study and analysis, of books and debate into a few sentences or paragraphs. The reasons why I think my view is best are horrendously complicated, depending on complex analyzes of all the evidence and cross-comparisons of different theories and ideas which build on other ideas and scholarship that the person I'm talking to often has never has encountered.

I think this makes me truly appreciate works where the author demonstrates they have engaged in this process themselves. Where they are not just saying "can I prove/disprove what I've been taught", but rather have long grappled with all the different atonement ideas and really understand the situation. I think this is what made me so contemptuous of Pierced For Our Transgressions as the authors demonstrated ignorance on all the important issues and had set out to prove what they had been taught in response to some else denying the truth of what they had been taught. (Similarly for Goligher's The Jesus Gospel) Whereas Brondos in Paul on the Cross gained my full respect by demonstrating that he understands how complex the situation is, that he is fully conversant with all the theories of atonement and sees how different Christians have been convinced different ones and biblical, and is interested in trying to get beyond this to learn something worthwhile about what the NT writers thought however complex this might be to accomplish, and he has good knowledge of the relevant scholarship.



Blogger Bryan L said...

What did you think of Carson's review of Brondos' book? Have you come across any favorable reviews? I'd be interested in reading what other biblical scholars think of his exegesis and handling of the date.

Bryan L

Blogger Andrew said...

I was amused to see Carson had reviewed it, since Carson obviously disagrees pretty much 100% with Brondos' view (compare to me who agrees pretty much 100% with Brondos). So I was surprised to find myself largely in agreement with Carson's review (probably because he expresses very few opinions) in that it's quite clear that Brondos doesn't prove his position and it's not that kind of book.

Brondos' is not trying to prove his position so much as explain his views and why he holds them. His goal is obviously to explain an alternative way of understanding Paul that he thinks is correct but which he (rightly IMO) thinks most people, including most scholars of Paul, might never have encountered or thought through. He cites plenty of scholarship in defense of his various views, but attempts little proof of his own views himself. Presumably the point is that the reader is supposed to go read parts of the cited works if they want proof of the point made.

Carson's critical comment that Brondos could have cited different scholarship and thus come to different conclusions strikes me as a bit irrelevant. That's always possible to do. Presumably Brondos didn't choose the ones he cited at random, but rather choose them because those are the ones whose arguments he agrees with.


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