Category: Atonement

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The Atonement of God by J.D. Myers

The Atonement of God by J.D. Myers (cover)A few years ago I was strongly considering writing a book. My premise was essentially a systematic theology but starting with the idea that God looks like Jesus, particularly when it comes to rejection of violence. The Atonement of God by J.D. Myers is the closest I’ve encountered to trying for the same goal, with a couple of significant differences:

  • It is not nearly as comprehensive as a systematic theology, sticking to topics that are directly related to a non-violent understanding of the atonement.
  • The starting point is a non-violent understanding of the atonement in particular, rather than a non-violent God in general.

Maybe that excitement biased me, but I felt like the book was only moderately successful.

Style

My main complaints are related to the style, not the content. It feels sloppily written. It often gets very repetitive, which meant that although it was a short book, it probably could have been half the size. It doesn’t really do a good job explaining what is meant by some terms, such as pacifism (see below). It uses gendered language, and I don’t just mean some that are very understandable like male pronouns for God – I mean regularly using “man” to mean humanity.

Paying Sin’s Wages

In youth group, I learned the “Roman Road”, a set of four verses that some would argue adequately summarize the Gospel, primarily in legal transaction terms. Among those four verses is 6:23, which I recently came across again in my reading:

The wages sin pays are death. (CEB)

Hey, wait a minute. The usual translation I’ve seen is “the wages of sin are death.”

So I looked up what the Greek said and inserted a fairly literal translation for each word after:

τὰ [the] γὰρ [for] ὀψώνια [wages] τῆς [the] ἁμαρτίας [sin] θάνατος [death]

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Atonement Theology and Compromise

Not long after spelling out my atonement theology, Morgan Guyton wrote a great post which also relates to atonement theology. In it, he draws the line between 3 things which might not be obviously connected:

  1. The current American government shutdown
  2. Faith that is based on no compromise
  3. The extreme versions of penal substitution (or you could argue all versions, just with different emphases)

The first two connect fairly easily, I think, and ties into many of the things I’ve said before about the problems of this model of fact-based and certainty-based faith. If your faith is one that says there can be no compromise – you know you are right and anybody else is wrong – then that will carry over to other domains like politics, too.

Hilasterion and My Atonement Theory

Since my last post detailing my atonement theology, I got a lot of positive feedback (a lot by the standards of this blog). Thank you for that. I also got two variations on the same question: how do I deal with Paul seemingly supporting the penal substitution view, including with the use of the word hilasterion which is often rendered in English as propitiation, which means something like “an appeasing gift” and has a Latin root?

I haven’t read any particularly deep studies on it so you can take anything I read with a grain of salt. I have just had short encounters with the word and what it means, like in my Greek class when I had to translate it working through 1 John. In that case, the dictionary I was using did say propitiation, although didn’t get into what that means or any implications of it. It was also an older dictionary, mid 20th century I think, so probably came from a context where there was less debate about atonement theories and the author very well could have read a bias into the text. So I did some brief research which gave me a general idea again and seems to fit with what I do vaguely remember.

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My Atonement Theology

This was definitely not an easy write. For about 4 years, I have off and on been wrestling with the traditional understanding(s) of the atonement, particularly the problems that flow out of the penal substitutionary view that I had been taught was the same thing as “the Gospel.” Now that I have finished The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver and have incorporated some of his thought into my working theory, I decided it was finally time to put the pieces together here. I’m not loading this up with biblical references or even academic references; I decided I wanted this to be as succinct as possible, which is still not very succinct.

The Problem: Knowledge of Good and Evil

As per satisfaction/penal theory, I believe that the problem is that we have been separated from God. But unlike in that theory, it wasn’t God’s honour or God’s demand for punishment which created the separation. Instead, it is our desire to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In this way we play God, deciding between good and evil. But unlike God, when we try to judge between good and evil, we are not able to extend grace and work toward a restorative justice and instead settle for feeling ashamed.

Summarizing The Nonviolent Atonement

I’ll make this final post on J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement a quick one. In the final section Weaver dialogues with a variety of similar approaches to atonement, explaining the differences as well as the similarities. I don’t think there was really that much here to dwell on except to acknowledge that a lot of different people are seeing problems with the penal substitionary approach to atonement and many are coming up with very similar alternatives.

Let’s recap the biggest recurring themes of the book oriented around criticisms of the penal substitution approach. Weaver, of course, goes into far more depth.

Discussing Derivatives of Anselmnian Atonement

In the next section of The Nonviolent Atonement, author J. Denny Weaver delves into conversation with those who maintain some degree of the Anselmnian/satisfaction/substitutionary theory of the atonement. There were some really interesting things to come out of this section, summarized below but, as always, in far greater detail in the book.

Reframing and Redefining

The first section of conversations revolve around attempts to reframe or completely redefine themes of satisfaction atonement. For example, many acknowledge the critiques of feminist and womanist theologians that it comes across as divine child abuse, and they therefore focus on how God is in Jesus, suffering with us and not some angry Father in the distance doling out the punishment. Unfortunately, though, most of those discussed in this section do still hold to some concept that it was God’s character which demanded the violence, thereby not escaping the problem, just pushing it to the side.

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Liberation Theologies and Atonement

James Cone is generally considered the founder of Black Theology

In the next section of The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver, he enters into dialogue with three categories of liberation theology: black theology, feminist theology, and womanist theology. As with the first two posts in this series, my synopsis here is a very brief look at the kind of detail explored by Weaver.

Discussed first, Black theology primarily reveals how penal substitutionary atonement encourages, or at least fails to confront, slavery. Recall that penal substitutionary theory is oriented around maintaining law and order; it is a top-down system where God keeps everything in line through force. The status quo is clearly what God wants in this framework: sacrifices, retributive justice, the need to punish somebody for sins. If God not only allows but requires this kind of framework, there is clearly no reason to challenge the top-down maintenance of the status quo through force in terms of race relations. This use of theology to maintain racial hierarchies is still true today in a lot of areas, even if it is more subtle than outright slavery of anybody with the “inferior” skin colour. Just think of the fact that we refer to Black theology, or Latino/a theology, but when we mean white (usually Protestant) theology we just call it simply “theology” as if it alone is purely objective.

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Atonement Theology in History

Crosses were not used as icons until after Constantine when crosses were no longer torture devices, and did not show Jesus suffering on them until around the same time as Anselm formed his theory

To the surprise of nobody who knows me, the section on how atonement theology fits within history was one of the most exciting parts of The Nonviolent Atonement. Many people won’t accept this, but the simple reality is that our theological positions are always a function at least in part of our context. Most people realize that the context of the biblical writers is important and we can’t just pull individual verses out to support whatever we want. Unfortunately most do not realize that those who have gone before us also always had a context for concluding the ideas that they did. Atonement is no exception.

In the early church, Weaver argues, the mindset was strictly toward what he calls narrative Christus Victor. The most important element from the motif for this aspect of the historical discussion, though, is that it is a very earthly theory with practical applications as to how to approach power and oppression. Jesus saved the world through challenging power in a non-violent way.