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Rambling musings on atonement

Yesterday, my kids and I began reading through the stories of the Bible. We’re using a children’s story bible that I really love because it doesn’t oversimplify the stories—it’s more like a children’s paraphrased bible with some added commentary explaining the meaning of the text we’re reading. As we were reading through the story of what happened after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, however, I was struck anew by how we tell the Story depends a lot on how we understand who Jesus is, why he took on flesh and bone, and what happened as he lived, died and rose again.

In this story bible, for example, how the writer(s) understand what happened to the human condition as a result of eating the forbidden fruit—and what Jesus did with in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection—seems to be filtered mostly through what I think seminary folks generally term a “penal substitution” understanding of atonement. If I’m getting this term right, this concept says that because God is holy and cannot ignore sin, he must exact a just punishment and so Jesus stood in our place and took our punishment. I’m with those who think it is a justifiable and biblical aspect of atonement—but it’s not the whole picture.

In A Community Called Atonement, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight suggests that we are better off utilizing a collection of theologies, theories or understandings of atonement in order to understand Jesus’ mission when he took on flesh and blood. If we limit our understanding to one concept—like penal substitution—we miss out on the whole picture:
Jesus identified with us so far “all the way down” that he died our death, so that we, being incorporated into him, might partake in his glorious, life-giving resurrection to new life. He died instead of us (substitution); he died a death that was the consequence of sin (penal). But, here again, this is not enough; it is just not enough to express atonement through the category of penal substitution.

If we limit atonement to this category, we have an atonement that is nothing more than an important theodicy: it explains how God can eliminate sin justly, but it only explains the wrath-to-death problem, and that is not all there is to atonement.
What more is there? McKnight suggests that atonement fixes a myriad of cascading problems associated with the broken human condition—what he calls broken Eikons (a Greek term meaning imago Dei or “the image of God” which derives from Genesis 1:26-27). “Eikons,” says McKnight, “are made for union with God, communion with others, love of self, and care for the world.” An Eikon is “a missional being—one designed to love God, self, and others and to represent God by participating in God’s rule in the world . . . . to participate in God’s overflowing perichoretic love—both within the Trinity and in the missio Dei with respect to the cosmos God has created. . . . To be an Eikon means to be in relationship.” Atonement, then, is “the restoration of the Eikon in all directions.” That includes a lot more than simply (though importantly) the substitution of Jesus for our sins:
His act of atonement has a dual focus in the light of the enormity of the problem with cracked Eikons: identification in order to remove sins and victory in order to liberate those who are incorporated into him so that they can form the new community where God’s will is realized. In this scoping out of atonement, we find its centrality in relationship: in being connected to Christ, in being in union with Christ, in being “in” Christ. He identifies with us all the way down to death in order that we might be incorporated into him. To be incorporated “in Christ” is not only a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but also a personal relationship with his people.
As I understand McKnight, he is saying that God’s atoning work is all about freeing the people of God to be as we were created to be, to create a society (the Kingdom) in which God’s will (bursting with Love, Right-ness and Grace) is here-and-now. An important part of that Story can be understood in terms of penal substitution, but that Story includes oh-so-much more if that indeed is the work of God.

How does all this affect how we tell the story of how the human condition changes in the Garden that fateful day? In the story bible the kids and I are reading, telling the Story through the lens of penal substitution results on a focus primarily on how the human heart became wicked and since God “cannot associate with sinners” there is a need for us to “pay for” our sins. Jesus is talked about in terms of a Saviour who pays for our sin, “who would bear their punishment in their place” so that we could again “walk and talk with God.” The Bible then:
. . . is a story of how God planned and prepared for the coming of His Son. It is the story of how the Saviour finally came to earth, and died to pay for our sins. It is the story of how you and I, even though we have wicked hearts, can be forgiven, and once again walk and talk with God.
I’ll be the first to agree that forgiveness of sins is imperative to restoring our relationship with God and the unimaginable and unfathomable sacrifice Jesus made for us did so. But I’ve come to see the Story as incredibly even more. And that in turn affects how I tell the Story to my children—and others.

I tell them that we were created good and in the image of God. That indeed wickedness and selfishness (sin) entered the human condition like a cancer through those acts in the Garden. In us remains the echoes of our creation in the image of God, but we are bent towards that sin. We are broken images of God—"cracked Eikons," as McKnight puts it—with echoes of his goodness and image yet bent towards sinfulness. We can’t operate as we were meant to be. We have the pull of our original creation in his image and the bend towards sin. Jesus seems to reference this when he tells the crowds that “as bad as you are” (inherently bent by sin) they still take care of their children (an echo of our original creation). Paul also references it when he talks about how we want to do a good thing (an echo of our original creation) but end up doing what we shouldn’t (bent by sin). While we can at times live by and in echoes of goodness, the Garden’s events leave us unable to be really good—as we were created to be. If we wanted, we could always choose to do the wrong thing, but we could never chose always to do the right thing. We are bent that way, doomed to eventually succumb to our cancer. And that affects not only our relationship with God but also our relationships with ourselves and others.

But God doesn’t leave us like that—broken creations, wrecked in relationship to him, shadows of the people we are called to be, dying of cancerous sin. Instead, as Paul puts it, God “went for the jugular” and reaches deep in his healing of the problem in Jesus, whose incarnation, life, death and resurrection not only frees us from the ultimate consequence of sin (death) but also frees us to Life, Love and Right-ness. We are incorporated into Christ—hidden with him in God—and immersed in the abundant life he offers. We are invited to work with God in taking off the habits of our bent life and live out of the Life we were created to live from and in. We are given back the relationship we were created for with God from which springs forth the relationships we were meant to share with each other.

The Story, then, is a love story. It is the story of how God works intimately and relentlessly beside and within we broken folks infected with sin to free, forgive and heal us, restore us to Life, bring us back into the relationships we were created for, inviting us to work with him in weaving and restoring that Life in all his creation.

In this rambling musing, I can't help but admit that my telling of the Story can’t escape the lens of my own experience and walk with God. It is the revelation and experience of Himself, his love for me (and each of us), the scents of his Kingdom, his goodness, the humbling awe of his personal attention, the encounters with his people and creations, and the longing for his people to be who he calls and enables them to be that affects my telling of the Story. These, as Mark Scandrette puts it, are the themes by which I tell my own story as well as the Story in which we all live.

But that seems to be par for the course. As McKnight puts it:
Our grasp of atonement is partial; the God we are grasping for is complete and whole. In God there is absolute truth; in our articulations there is always something lacking, something partial, and something still yearning for yet more. A proper confidence in the God who atones reminds us of this and keeps us humble—and in conversations as we work this atonement thing out in each generation.
I need to read, hear, tell and work through this Story with others. Like many others, I have a tendency to limit the Story with my own preferred lenses. It is by talking with others and reading books like McKnight’s (or by Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Wayne Jacobsen, James Emery White, Donald Miller, Lauren Winner—and the list goes on) that challenge me to embrace the Story in its ever-growing depth and richness.

(Images: public domain via Wikipedia: Christ in the Desert; Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden; Jesus heilt die Kranken)


For what it's worth, my own journey to Orthodoxy began over a decade ago with my increasing disenchantment with the penal-substitutionary approach to the atonement, which seemed to be pretty much the only approach that any of my fellow evangelicals knew.

It's interesting, really, how a number of evangelical catchphrases -- catchphrases that are popular among people who emphasize the Bible over everything, sometimes even over God (how many evangelical statements of faith make the Bible item #1 and God item #2?) -- are essentially non-biblical. The phrase "Jesus paid the penalty for my sins"? Not in the Bible. And I can remember going through an NIV concordance looking for buzzwords like "penalty" to see what, if anything, the Bible really had to say about them.

Somewhere in there, I read Robert Jewett's Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph Over Shame, which basically laid the blame for penal-substitionary theory at Augustine's feet (others would place it a few centuries later, at Anselm's feet), and which powerfully made the case that Paul was far more concerned with social honour-shame paradigms than with individualistic guilt-punishment paradigms.

So I increasingly came to believe that a huge swath of Christianity had gotten Jesus and Paul wrong, but I was disturbed by the possibility that so many years could have gone by in which no one got them right, and I didn't necessarily like the thought that I would be essentially making up my own hermeneutic to replace the one that I had been raised with.

So imagine my surprise when I expressed some of these misgivings to some online friends of mine, and one of them piped up and said, "We Orthodox don't agree with Augustine and Anselm either." That was the first crack in the door, and it took me several years before I even visited an Orthodox church, let alone considered joining one, but this was one of the main reasons that I did, in the end: To be part of a church that had had a better understanding of the atonement all along.

I was especially intrigued when I read St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation, and what he has to say about the crucifixion. (Athanasius was one of the prime champions of the Trinitarian understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son, against the Arian heresy; he was also the first person to create a list of New Testament books that perfectly matches what we now find in our Bibles. So he's a fairly significant figure, as early-church types go.)

Anyway, if memory serves, I don't think Athanasius really spends any time on anything resembling a penal-substitutionary model of the atonement. What he does do is address skeptics' concerns such as, Why did God die? Why was his death so public? Why was his death so shameful? (There's that honour-shame thing again!) And part of Athanasius's response goes something like this: Christ came to defeat death, and when you send a wrestler into the ring, you don't prove how powerful he is by pre-selecting his opponents and staging a rigged fight; no, you invite the other side to do its worst and to send the most challenging opponents against your wrestler that they can. So the reason Christ had to die on the cross -- the reason he had to die the most public, shameful, horrific, even accursed death imagineable -- is because he needed to confront the worst kind of death that the enemy could throw at him, in order to prove that he really had conquered death. If he had died peacefully in his sleep, well, everyone would say that that was fine and respectable, but had he really accomplished anything? What hope would there be for others? So, no, Christ had to let death do its worst, so that he could show, conclusively, that he had defeated death in all its forms.

There's a lot more I could say about this, but I've written far too long a comment as it is. :)
Carmen Andres said…
". . . to confront the worst kind of death that the enemy could throw at him, in order to prove that he really had conquered death. . . . so that he could show, conclusively, that he had defeated death in all its forms."

peter, i LOVE that! (looks like i've got another person to add to my reading list, heh.) one of the things i am continually struck by as i live in and ruminate on the Story is how powerful Life is. i have come to think of Jesus' mission ending up like an explosion of Life that swallows death as it rushes outward in all directions.

it is funny how we followers of Jesus can walk for centuries elevating concepts and understandings to the point that are unexaminable and as sacred as the Story itself. not that these concepts and understandings aren't helpful, just that they get so warped and misused. i am in the process of thinking through that with how we understand and express what it means to be the people of God. and a huge part of that comes back to things like this, to how we understand who Jesus is and what his mission was and is.

peter, thanks for your words and the time you took (in the wee hours of the morning) to put them down. blessings.