Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Paul does not teach substitutionary atonement

I realize this entry jumps far ahead into 1 Corinthians, but as it has to do with the past Easter weekend I felt I had to post this. The following is from Kenneth Bailey’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. The excerpt is from the chapter on 1 Corinthians 15:1-20. Through it Dr. Bailey appears to affirm the Christus Victor model of the atonement.

Two works I recommend on further study of Christus Victor include Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement and Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross.

Excerpts were taken from the Kindle edition of Bailey’s commentary, found at locations 5097 through 5121.

It is impossible to deal with this text without noting the work of the medieval theologian Anselm (b. A.D. 1033), who developed the widely influential substitutionary theory of the atonement… For Anselm "Christ died for our sins" meant that Christ was a substitute for sinful humankind. One of the major difficulties with this theory is that it has allowed the word for to take on commercial overtones. [Examples of commercial exchange of goods for payment]…

Anselm developed this theory in the eleventh century… How then did Christians for the first millennium become believers when they did not have the substitutionary theory of the atonement to help them understand the cross? The simple answer is, the early Christians did not need Anselm… [Reference to parable of good shepherd, Lk. 15:4-7.] The focus is on the rescue, not the penalty.

The father in the parable of the prodigal son thought only of his love for his son when he humiliated himself in public by running down the crowded village street to reconcile his son before the son reached the hostile village. As he ran he was offering a costly demonstration of unexpected love. He was not paying a debt…

In Luke 15, along with other parables and dramatic actions, Jesus was indeed interpreting his own cross. The father in the parable was able to reprocess anger into grace and offer a costly demonstration of unexpected love to his yet self-confident son. The son planned to “work and pay” for his sins. He thought the issue was the lost money, and surmised that if he could get job training he would one day be able to pay back everything that he had squandered. It was only when he saw the depth of his father's suffering love that he understood the depth of his sin, and only then could he accept to be found and restored by an act of pure grace.

"Christ died because of our sins" is the preferred (legitimate) Arabic translation of this text. Our sins caused his death. The grave danger in much popular reflection on the atonement relates to the introduction of a third party. The theory, in its simplest form, is as follows: God is angry over sin, and he could justly punish us. But Jesus enters the picture and takes the punishment for us. So far, so good. In this sense Jesus is rightly understood as a substitute for us. But is Jesus a third party? Is God the Father a separate God from God the Son?

To affirm for this view is to create a strong whiff of Zoroastrianism, where there is a good god (Ahura Mazdah), and an evil god (Ahriman), a god of light and a god of darkness. The believer's task is to serve the good god, who protects us from the evil god. But not so the New Testament. Paul writes, "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8). He also wrote, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor 5:19). There is no third party. God is the one who acts in Christ out of love to reconcile us to himself. There is no split in the heart of God, with God the Father opposing God the Son.

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