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.
There’s the problem, obviously, of violence. Jesus was nonviolent. Jesus taught nonviolence. Other New Testament authors consistently agree. And Jesus is the complete revelation of God. Yet according to the penal view, God not only has occasional violent tendencies but absolutely requires violence. There’s a clear contradiction here, but scholastic and modern theologians were more interested in God fitting their Christendom assumptions than they were in their understanding of God looking like God’s own revelation to us in Jesus.
Related to this is the problem of justice. Why would we limit God’s justice to simply crime and punishment, especially when the Bible seems to be regularly in favour of a restorative justice approach instead? Even if God did only care about retribution rather than restoration, how is punishing an innocent person/taking the punishment himself just?
There are many problematic pastoral/ethical implications to come from these problems. If violence is necessary to restore honour (Anselmnian language) or to balance out some cosmic balance sheet of crime and punishment (Calvin’s language), it is pretty easy to see why men have often felt it was their God-given duty to keep women in line if they offend his honour or disturb the status quo balance sheet. Same goes for whites over other races or any other societal hierarchy. The penal view very clearly favours those in power maintaining their power, regardless of the cost.
Lastly, and touched on by Weaver in the conclusion, the big question is about the nature of God’s character. In the penal view, God is primarily a violent legalist/feudal lord interested in retribution. That character seems quite different than Jesus who we claim is the ultimate revelation of God. Our atonement theology needs to be one that fits with the character of Jesus rather than one antithetical to it. The details of atonement theology may not really matter that much in and of themselves, but this question of the character of God will change everything about how we approach the world.