Paul Trathen is the Anglican vicar at whose church, about ten miles from my home, I went to a gig by Tim Chesterton, which I blogged about before. Paul, a rather occasional blogger, has now entered the atonement debate by contributing quite a long essay. In this he reviews three different books about the atonement. Pierced for Our Transgressions, of which we have heard so much here, and even more on Adrian’s blog, is not one of them. One reason for this is that Paul’s essay is probably not as new as this book. But it may also be that from Paul’s perspective outside the rather narrow confines of evangelicalism Pierced for Our Transgressions looks a much less significant book than Adrian and some others want to consider it.
Paul first considers The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity by John Carroll and Joel Green, which is a look at the varied biblical material. They write (at least I think these are Carroll and Green’s words, Paul T doesn’t distinguish his quotes clearly):
interpreters of Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus have not always appreciated the dazzling array of colors in the mural of Paul’s theology of the cross, often reducing those images to a one-dimensional, monochromatic rendition that brings into sharp focus only the Pauline emphasis on the crucifixion as the definitive soteriological event.
Paul T notes that “Paul’s central mode of address remains, throughout, the metaphor”. So, again apparently quoting Carroll and Green,
Metaphors are two-edged: they reveal and conceal, highlight and hide. This means, first, that no one metaphor will capture the reality of the atonement. Metaphors from Israel’s sacrificial system communicate something important about the death of Jesus, but they cannot contain the profundity of the cross of Christ.
Paul T takes this theme up further in the second book he looks at, The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition by Colin Gunton. Gunton rejects rationalistic explanations of the atonement, and looks instead at how the atonement has been described with metaphors derived from four human institutions, “the legal system, the altar of sacrifice, the battlefield and the slavemarket.” These different metaphors correspond to various models of the atonement, such as “Christus Victor” and the penal substitutionary model.
This leads Paul to his third book, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts by Joel Green and Mark Baker, which looks more closely at penal substitutionary atonement. This is how Paul summarises part of its argument:
The criticism is that Anselm generates too narrow a view of sin. Regarding ‘honour’ as the prime focus, he “emphasizes dealing with the debt of sin, not on eradicating sin itself.” For Anselm, the matter of meeting the debt to satisfy the honour of the offended lord gives no room for the relationship itself between us and the lord and excludes the notion of development, communion, discipleship, transformation; it “gives no attention to the impact a restored relationship with God will have on a person’s relationship with others.” … This criticism stands as the principle objection to Anselm and penal substitution – that is, in appropriating too narrowly the social norms and mores of its time, it constructs a very limited expression of the scope of the Atonement.
Green and Baker note that atonement is understood very differently in the shame-based culture of Japan from how it is understood in the guilt-based culture of the modern West.
More controversially for evangelicals like myself, Paul concludes his essay by linking penal substitutionary atonement with the doctrines of hell and of justification by faith:
These three doctrines form a superstructure upon which much of the rest of the theological edifice has been built: remove one of them and the whole construction shakes and falls. For many theologians, a doctrine of a punitive hell has had to go, and its corollaries have started to tumble with it.
So what shall stand in its place?
Here, as Paul appeals to John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, I have to part company from him, for I cannot accept neither the wholesale demolition of this doctrinal superstructure, nor so-called “faithful developments” in doctrine which depart from biblical teaching. Nevertheless, with the Bible rather than Newman’s principles as a guideline I can come to rather similar conclusions to Paul’s:
In a time of increasing cultural fragmentation, perhaps the Atonement needs to appropriate metaphors of wholeness and integrity; in a time of increasing speed of social process, perhaps the Atonement needs to be captured in an image of arrest or stillness; in a time of growing disparities in wealth and poverty, perhaps the Atonement will be the contentment of ‘enough’. Because we are still talking in ideas, and we need to rely on the more subtle skills of the metaphor, there is plenty more reflecting to do.
Thank you, Paul, for an interesting and thought-provoking essay.