Paul Trathen on the Atonement

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.

0 thoughts on “Paul Trathen on the Atonement

  1. I’m under the impression that the PFOT crowd would reject Joel Green outright as a liberal. As I understand it, he’s the one who American evangelicals point to as having started the current ‘heretical’ (sic) debate. (Not sure what slot they stick Gunton into.)

  2. Pam, I’m not surprised to hear it. But have they read his books? Or have they got past some irrelevant quibbles they may have with Green’s presuppositions to understand his main points? Well, I haven’t read Green either, only this summary of his work, but there is enough here to make me interested.

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  4. As you note, Peter, I am an increasingly-infrequent blogger, and so inattentive that I had not even realised until today that you had been talking about my essay!
    (You correctly deduce, by the way, that it is a rehash of something I wrote before the publication of PFOT (which I have not read, but which was ‘in production’ at Oak Hill College when I was there, on NTMTC training, a handful of years ago…))

    I appreciate your sensitive summary of my piece, but wonder if your resistance to my use of Newman towards the conclusion is entirely thought through?

    My contention, throughout, is that we need to view a doctrine such as The Atonement as understandable best through metaphors. These, necessarily, vary in potency and application according to the cultures and circumstances which generate them. Rather than accept simply a relative ‘free-for-all’ in reaching for new metaphors amidst the old, I was simply looking for a way to talk about the need for ‘developments’ in our understanding/envisioning of doctrine. In providing a handful of ‘key tests’ for the development of faithful Christian doctrine, I have always found Newman to be a helpful and steady guide. You contend that you prefer the Bible, but I do not really see what it is that you mean by that. Certainly, scripture read by other scripture will permit you to observe patterns in which the revelation of God unfolds for His people in a variety of contexts, but it does not especially help us to understand how God has been at work in cultures and contexts during the two thousand years since Our Lord’s earthly life and that of the first Christians, written about as the concluding entries to the Canon of scripture.
    Looking at the development of doctrine, as Newman does, allows you to look critically at how doctrines influence one another during certain historic developments, also. My example of the strong relationship of a penal substitutionary model of the Atonement with a doctrine of a punitive Hell can be explored from the end of the High Middle Ages onwards, through a number of guises. A punitive model of the doctrine of Hell is a rarer thing, though, in the first millenium of the Christian era. In that era, since the dominant doctrine for the Atonement was that of the ‘Christus Victor’ – in which Christ is victorious over the powers of Death and Hell – and, indeed, ‘harrows’ Hell – the dominant doctrine of Hell is of a dominion broken though God’s victory in Jesus.
    These things are inevitably going to colour each other…..

    …anyway, you have made me realise that I should take more time out to write stuff on the blog, and to comment on others, as I have done here! Thanks for the opportunity!!

    …and if you want to push this one on a little further, I’ll happily give it a go!

  5. Thank you, Paul. I accept that I may have been too quick to dismiss Newman. It is a long time since I studied his work on the development of doctrine, and maybe what I remember is a bit of a caricature. But my concern, as far as I remember it, is that his approach allows for the church to wander, maybe very slowly but to a significant extent over centuries and millennia, away from its original position, with very little that is fixed to bring it back. Perhaps I can liken it to a dog tied with a short rope to a heavy rock which it can move only very slowly. I would prefer to see the church as tied to a fixed point, a fixed standard of doctrine based on the Bible. I would accept that it can be tied with quite a long rope, to allow for cultural changes etc. But it can never move away completely from that fixed point.

    I tend to agree with your preference for the Christus Victor model in which the dominion of hell is broken. I have been writing more recently, such as in comments here, against the kind of idea that most people will be sent to hell and only a few saved. But I also have issues with any complete rejection of the idea of people being sent to hell in some sense, if only for destruction, because the implication of that is that unrepentant wicked people, such as Judas, Nero, Hitler and Stalin, are saved.

  6. As it goes, I have a pretty robust doctrine of hell, and am some distance from being a universalist when it comes to soteriology.
    (I shall be preaching in Advent at Rawreth along the ancient pattern of The Four Last Things – Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven. Come along if you fancy a change of scenery from Meadgate!)

    With regard to Newman, I found him persuasive. Any student of cultural studies will tell us that cultural norms and their relationships to each other are entirely contingent. Whilst Newman does not have this language to describe it, I read him as recognizing the truth that the Incarnation points to God’s embrace and affirmation of the particular and contingent in human history and place. If God so affirms that He can be fully present as Fully Man and Fully God in the person and life of Jesus Christ, and His revelation of Himself can then be explored using metaphors drawn from that particular culture and era, it then seems plausible and sensible – and rather exciting! – that God’s work can be understood in other metaphors which make sense in other cultural contexts.

    If we take seriously the Pauline metaphor of the Body as a picture of what the Church – the faithful disciples of Jesus – are to be, then we will allow for this kind of organic development. St Paul does not give the image of a statue, fixed in stone, but of a body which will change and mature by steady degrees, yet remain identifiably of a unity with its precursors.

  7. Thanks, Paul. I have nothing to disagree with here. Since you use the language of metaphors, I fully agree with you that “God’s work can be understood in other metaphors which make sense in other cultural contexts”. There is a double danger which I see is when the metaphor is misunderstood as the reality, as by many PSA advocates. The first danger here is that the metaphor is absolutised and those who don’t accept it as the complete story are condemned. The second danger is that the reality behind the metaphor gets lost, especially if development over the centuries allows a series of metaphors of metaphors to drift away from the original reality.

  8. Paul, thank you also to your invitation to your Advent series. In practice I have responsibilities most Sunday mornings at Meadgate which limit the amount I can be away. So I will have to decline your invitation.

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