Thursday, July 19, 2007

Narrative atonement

The idea of a narrative theory of the atonement has been around for a while now. Though all models of the atonement implicitly have some overarching story within which they take place, in most models there is some specific point in history at which the Atoning Event happens that drastically changes the created order and provides the ultimate "solution" to the "plight" of humanity, eg when Christ dies on the cross he "defeats the devil" or "takes upon himself the sins of the world". These models of the atonement could be said to focus in on a single event, a single moment in time, and the rest of the framework of redemption which they provide is based around leading up to that one event and then looking back to it. The framework of redemptive history is secondary to the Event of Atonement.

Narrative models of the atonement, by contrast, reject the idea of there being one past event of atonement, and see the course of redemptive history throughout all of history as being what is of primary importance. Any atoning events (note the plural and the lower case) that take place throughout history are only relevant insofar as they tie into everything else and cumulatively build up the big picture. In these stories of history there is no one place you can point to and say "atonement happened then", but rather lots of things happen which interact in complex ways as part of an ongoing story about the world.

The most common narrative model is Narrative Christus Victor, which looks at the world and sees an ongoing battle between forces of "good" and "evil". This is usually construed as not just being a spiritual battle, but an everyday thing with "evils" being things like poverty, racism, hatred, anger. The agents of "good" are anyone anywhere who promotes love, kindness, and positive transformation within the world. Thus in this model, throughout history God is at work through individuals, through Israel, through the Church to bring positive change to creation. The Devil (be he real or a metaphor) is active in the world to promote hatred, destruction and suffering. This narrative model attempts to tell a story of how throughout history there is an ongoing "battle" between good and evil and situates Christ as part of that story and also us too.

Narrative views have a tendency to be difficult to communicate. Most people are used to models of the atonement that are a logically interconnected series of propositions that describe how the Atoning Event "worked". Such explanations can easily be precise, logical, and clear. In contrast, a story about redemptive history that situates both us and Jesus within a wider story can be a lot harder to tell clearly, especially if the hearers are used to hearing how Atoning Events Work and not used to hearing stories.

I recall when I first started studying the writings of the early Christian Fathers, the question I had in my head was "how did they think Christ's death worked?" At the time I thought this was a pretty open-minded question - I was really interested in getting past all presupposed answers I had been taught by people and seeing what the early church really believed. Looking back on it now, I realize that my question there made quite a few arbitrary assumptions - you could have rephrased my question as "Atonement works by a single Atoning Event which took place at the Death of Jesus at which point a real metaphysical change occurred in the created order solving the problem of humanity, and all this can be expressed in a clear series of logical propositions. What did the early Church believe these logical propositions were?" At the time I was disappointed because I failed to find any definitive answer to this question in the early Fathers...

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Blogger Blackhaw said...

narrative atonement sounds interesting especially since the church fathers seemed to signify different times when the atonement occurred. (if there was one specific time for them). But it seems to maybe downplay Christ, the incarnation, the cross/ressurection and it seems to downplay a real objective atonement. So I have some concerns. Can you give me some more information about it and give me some places, websites, articles, and/ or books about the subject.

Blogger Andrew said...

Hmmm. Well Brondos in Paul on the Cross argues strongly for a narrative view, which is why I posted the introductory comment on narrative views because I'm going to post something further on how Brondos differs from the average narrative view.

Try also:
Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, Green & Baker
Beyond the Passion, Patterson
The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, Rashdall


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