Monday, August 24, 2015

riffing a bit on some ideas implied by Phoenix Preacher on the doctrines that are neglected, a musing on atonement theories

In the last few years Wenatchee The Hatchet has seen some ludicrous assertions made about what theological point Mark Driscoll endorsed over the years that was the sure proof he went into bad territory. That's nonsense. The problem was where his character went.  He wasn't a Calvinist in the earlier years and although he said he was a Calvinist for many a year he may, for all we do and don't know, have only been as Reformed as he thought he needed to be in order to secure financial backing from people in that camp.

Since David Nicholas isn't alive to bear witness to why his public relationship to Mark Driscoll withered on the vine and Mark Driscoll probably cannot be trusted to give either an accurate or honest answer about that, the question as to why they parted ways may never be satisfactorily answered.  But it may be irrelevant in the long-run because as Driscoll pops up on the charismatic conference circuit, it seems his sales pitch for a return as a charismatic without a seatbelt is where he may be heading if he decides to stage a comeback.

If Mark Driscoll announced later this year that he's an Arminian egalitarian charismatic do you think that would make him more fit for formal ministry than when he was a Calvinist complementarian charismatic with a seatbelt?  You're part of the problem if you do.

See, one of the problems with those who have attempted to deal with Driscoll just on doctrinal terms is they don't always necessarily understand the doctrines they're talking about.  Maybe they do, but sometimes they latch on to some pet doctrine they're already into and make that the reason for Driscoll's demise.  Anyone who seriously proposes that Mark Driscoll went astray for not properly adhering to the regulative principle is just a regulative principle junkie who all too often has no meaningful firsthand knowledge of what the culture was like, let alone ever met Mark Driscoll.  For folks who are hung up about Mark Driscoll's "limited unlimited atonement" (conventionally identifiable as Amyraldianism to theology wonks) that, too, isn't really an indicator.  Prophets, priests and kings the problem?  Mark Driscoll transforming those categories into a stupid neo-Calvinist MBTI profiling tool isn't the same thing as the Westminster Confession outlining how because Christ fulfilled the roles of prophet, priest and king He is our perfect savior who is God and man.

Some folks might decide that if they don't endorse the same atonement theories as a guy like Driscoll that's the difference.  It's not.  Back in the 2005 atonement series Driscoll praised a dozen explanations of the atonement and said they are all necessary and vital for a fully-orbed Christian walk.  It's one of the very few things Driscoll's preached from the pulpit Wenatchee The Hatchet would agree with now. 

Of course there are basically three broad categories of atonement--the ransom/champion model; the satisfaction model (from which penal substitutionary atonement is a derivative); and the moral influence or christus exemplar model.  These are just metaphors that are gateways into reflecting on the life and work of Christ.

That "life" part cannot be overlooked.  See, some lazy and ignorant Christians who get tired of hearing PSA junkies beat that drum might be tempted to say,"Oh, well, let's reflect on the Incarnation".  Right, because why God the Son would choose to live as a human among us isn't organically tied to walking the road to Jerusalem and to Golgatha.  At the risk of getting into what might be uncomfortable territory for some Christian readers, the metaphors known as atonement theory have shortcomings.  It's why if you embrace one metaphor and reject the others what you "might" have a problem with is not the metaphor but the atonement itself, though mileage varies.

Jeffrey Burton Russell wrote five fantastic books on the history of thought about the devil.  Along the way he addressed the basic atonement theories as theodicies.  After all, an atonement theory in its photonegative form can be construed as a theory about how God dealt with the consequences of evil. The early popular theories were that Christ was our ransom and that Christ conquered Satan, sin and death.  So far, so good.  But over time Christian theologians began to wonder, what was it about defeating Satan, sin and death that necessitated the Incarnation to begin with?  Here we can begin to see, with help from Russell, that it's not ultimately possible to create a distinction between the Incarnation and the Cross.  What theologians began to worry about was that it sure seemed like Satan and death had a ton of power if Jesus had to come as a man and die.  If God were all-powerful and all-wise it would seem possible to defeat Satan, sin and death without having to go through the Incarnation or go to the Cross, at least in theory.

Now here's some layperson speculation on this riff, it's interesting to make this guess that the early atonement metaphors were popular in cultural and historical settings in which Christianity was not the establishment religion. It's not just that the metaphor of ransom and the metaphor of Christ as victorious warrior against our enemies would be appealing to a minority sect in the Roman empire, it's that we can get a sense that this metaphor also informed the apocalyptic literature of the time and the nature of the ethical instruction in the epistles.  As we await the final subjugation of the enemies of God we learn to live as aliens and strangers in the world in which we live.

After Constantine and after Christendom emerged a shift took place.  Thank (or blame) Anselm for formulating satisfaction theory.  The proposal was that since God, being all-powerful and wise, could conceivably have defeated evil and the devil and sin any way He wished, it was to satisfy God's own sense of justice that Jesus came in the flesh and lived and died and rose again for our benefit. This could later evolve into penal substitutionary atonement.

Thing is, if in the earlier metaphor the shortcoming was how powerful evil seemed to be that it necessitated the life as well as death of Christ, in this new variation there's a different shortcoming.  If Christ is the perfect substitute whose death satisfies the justice of God for our sake, couldn't Jesus have been stillborn or even aborted?  Why did Jesus live among us and then choose to go to the cross?

Thus we get to the moral influence/christus exemplar metaphor, that Christ came to live and die as the example to inspire us, the exemplary life for us to consider the paradigm for true humanity.  That, too, is a powerful and potent metaphor ... it's just that it's pretty obvious nobody can be that perfect. 

Then again, if we bear in mind these are metaphors formulated by humans trying to understand something about Christ, we can consider that no metaphor is all-encompassing. 

Having grown up in the kind of church setting where the moral influence metaphor was basically never used, I got to hear of it from United Methodists and it seemed rather unsavory.  The reason was that too many American Christians who insist on sounding off on atonement theories act as though you have to pick one and the others are lame.  It's more like you accept that Christ atoned for us in both life and death and that you have to make room in your heart and mind for all of the metaphors.  Show me the metaphor of atonement you ignore or reject and I'll have a suggestion as to which metaphor for the atonement you might benefit most from considering. 

Let's play the broadbrush game a little here.  Take the Reformed, they're way into substitutionary atonement/satisfaction theory.  What if they spent time on the ransom/victor metaphor?  Or the moral influence/Christ our example metaphor? On paper who would deny that Christ is our example for those who are Christians?  But at a practical level if your chief understanding of who Christ is is as the sacrificial substitute that can focus on what you've been saved from in a way that forgets what you're saved to.

For folks of a more liberal bent or a social justice bent, the exemplar paradigm seems great. But the trouble is that liberal Protestantism (and the other kinds), particularly the post-millenialist sort that moved swiftly along the American continent, was able to justify a whole lot of bad stuff.  The American Civil War, too.  The problem is that if we over-emphasize Christ as the example and are too confident in our capacity to go and do likewise we may be blind to the need of atonement for that kind of thing we still say and do called sin. Having previously been one to be skeptical of christus exemplar because only liberal Methodists ever seemed to talk about it, Wenatchee The Hatchet considers it a necessary understanding, a metaphor that is inextricably linked to the other metaphors that deal with the atoning life and work of Christ.

If there's an understanding of the atonement that you, as a professing Christian, reject or find unappealing you might as well say "This is the thing that Christ did not need to do for me or for anyone else."


Anonymous said...

Wow. You nailed it.
But next time, could you break it into chapters?
It would make it easier to digest in bite-sized chunks.

Anonymous said...