Thursday, May 03, 2007

Theological Reflection

Christ Died Because of Our Sins, Not For Our Sins
by J. Edwin Bacon, Rector
All Saints Church, Pasadena
[from this week's edition of Saints Alive ... our weekly newsletter]

Is God’s capacity to forgive limited or is it mea­sureless and lacking desire for retribution?

Did Jesus die because of our sins or did he die for our sins?

In this debate about the nature of God, Jesus actually had quite a strong point of view. Jesus’ image of God was one of un­conditional love as he described the forgiv­ing parent in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). Quoting Hebrew Scripture (Hosea 6:6; by the way, don’t ever let some­one tell you that “the God of the Old Testa­ment is a God of punishment”), Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9: 9-13).

Much of institutionalized Christianity has taught a theology that disagrees with Je­sus. Rather than seeing God with a power­ful eagerness to forgive simply because of the nature of God’s love, which has no need for bloodthirsty sacrifices, the church has often expressed a competing theology (based on an 11th century theory of St. Anselm referred to as “substitutionary sacrificial atonement”). That theology has held that the very essence of Christianity is that without Christ’s sac­rificial death on the cross, “we would for­ever be guilty, ashamed and condemned before God.” (Mark Dever, “Nothing but the Blood,” Christianity Today, May, 2006, p. 29, quoted in Borg, Marcus, Jesus; Un­covering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, pp. 267-268)

The Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser, says about this theology, “the idea of God murdering his son for the salvation of the world is … morally indefensible. It turns Christianity into cosmic child abuse.” (Giles Fraser, “Cross Purposes,” The Guardian, April 4, 2007) Furthermore, Dr. Fraser (the Vicar of St. Mary’s Church, Put­ney, in London and lecturer at Oxford) argues that it promotes a heretical theological basis for the death penalty, refusing to believe that pure and simple forgiveness without punish­ment can ever be a proper response to sin. Such a conditioned form of forgiveness is the basis of retributive understandings of justice (a debt has to be paid off in full) instead of restorative understandings of justice.

Restor­ative justice has been at the heart of Desmond Tutu’s ministry in the Truth and Reconcilia­tion Commission in South Africa -- “No Fu­ture Without Forgiveness.” This is why it is important for us to reexamine this skewed theology of justice-as-revenge which also functions aggressively beneath a foreign poli­cy that initiates unjust, immoral wars of choice and then calls on religion to bless those wars.

I would like for us to make some occasions to discuss these matters as a faith community. In our reassessment of an injurious theology cer­tain hymn texts and Eucharistic prayers need to be examined. Thus, on May 13, Elaine Pa­gels and I will lead a conversation in the Rec­tor’s Forum about these matters. On June 10, James Carroll will be here to offer his resourc­es to our reflections. In addition, Giles Fraser will be in residence at All Saints in October for additional teaching. Finally, we are inviting Marcus Borg to be with us in 2008. I hope that you will join me in these efforts to bring our theology into alignment with that of Jesus.

Recommended Readings:
Marcus Borg,
Jesus; Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary
James Carroll,
Constantine’s Sword; The Church and the Jews: A History.
(Read especially the last section of the book on Church Reform)
Giles Fraser,
Elaine Pagels,
Beyond Belief; The Secret Gospel of Thomas
Joanne Marie Terrell,
Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience


Ann said...

James Cone in Harvard Divinity Bulletin Winter 2007 has an article - Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Hanging Tree. He offers another approach to the cross from the point of view of the victim and God's solidarity with the slaughtered.

Lorian said...

So true, Susan. The idea of God "setting us up" with a forbidden tree, then damning all of humanity for the offense committed by the first pair, then forcing humanity to bear the guilt of slaughtering his son in order to have our guilt expurgated...

It's like some kind of codependent's nightmare.

Anonymous said...

God's capacity to forgive may be limitless, but his forgiveness has conditions - in the parable of the prodigal son, the son first had to first repent. Also, the verse in Matthew ends - 'I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentence.' And in order to repent, your definitions of sin needs to be precise as well.
Please consider this.

Susan Russell said...

The father running out onto the road to meet the son and welcoming him back -- unconditionally -- before a word of "I'm sorry" was spoken is the story as I learned it.

As for definition of sin if we accept "whatever separates us from God" then the willingness to be embraced by God's compassionate, unconditional love is what defeats sin ... not innocent blood shed as sacrifice.

Rowan The Dog said...

Dear Robert,

Another thing you might consider is Luke 23:24. "Father, forgive them," prays Jesus, "for they don't know what they are doing." Then -- continuing on with what they were doing before Jesus prayed for them -- they cast lots for his clothes.

Having any awareness at all seems not to matter too much to Jesus in this account.

And, despite the fact that they continued right on with what they were doing I don't recall any subsequent prayer of Jesus saying, "Oh, I take it back Father. I didn't realize that they weren't going to repent. Do go ahead and smite them."

I am open to being convicted of sin. And, like you probably, I repent in general and by incident as well. But, the obtaining of forgiveness is not dependent on it. It is the gift of God for which I am too poor and wretched to even ask. I simply give thanks that it is.


Sam + said...

2 Corinthians 5:21 - God made him to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (Paul's understanding of Substitutionary Atonement)

Mark 9:45 - The Son of Man came to be serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Jesus' understanding of his substitionary atonement)

BCP 334 - a full, perfect, sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world (Cranmer's understanding of the substitutionary atonement)

Have fun revising the liturgy. Whatever you come up with, it won't be Christian or Anglican without the subsititionary atonement.

Lorenzo said...

Susan, I may be no theologian. But a plain reading of I Cor.15 clearly says that Christ died for our sins. And that this is at the very heart of the Gospel. I think it is a good and worthwhile effort to consider other "what-if's", but to me, I can't seem to see any other "what-if" to the purpose of Christ's death on the cross.

Bob said...

The story of the prodigal son is a wonderful expression of the depth of God's forgiveness. True, the son never has to say he is sorry before the father embraces him. However, the son must first recognize his error, and turn to seek out forgiveness before he can accept forgiveness.

The same theme is repeated when Jesus is talking with the Pharisees. When he says, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Mt 9:9-13), he is speaking of the empty sacrifices that the Pharisees offer without realizing that they are also sinners in need of forgiveness. When Jesus says he has come to call sinners, he is by no means saying the Pharisees are without sin. He is saying that he has come to heal those who recognize their need for healing.

Jesus extends forgiveness to all. Only some will choose to receive this gift. But there are strings attached. A consistent teaching of Jesus is that those who are able to forgive others will be forgiven (cf. Mt 6:15). In Luke 23:24, Jesus sets an example for us by asking the Father to forgive those who are acting unjustly toward him. This is the example that that Stephen follows at his martydom (Acts 6:60).

Restorative justice is a restorative process that the victim and offender enter into together. Ideally, the end result is that a victim can forgive and that an offender can seek and receive forgiveness.

I think it would be interesting to examine the theory of atonement with the concept of restorative justice in mind.

Peace in Christ

Benjer said...

Rev. Russell,
Thank you for posting this article by Rev. Bacon. I would like to point out that a person who would use the doctrine of substitutionary atonement to justify the death penalty misunderstands that doctrine. Indeed, Hebrews 10:1-18 states that Christ's sacrifice was a once-for-all sacrifice. Thus, it is a misunderstanding of substitutionary atonement that provides a misguided theological basis for the death penalty. The fact that some people misunderstand a doctrine should not be a reason for discarding it.

Blessings to you,

Milton said...

Rev. Susan, you can cast substitutionary atonement as 11th century revisionism all you want, but the writer to the Hebrews was no revisionist, nor later than 1st century. Read Hebrews Chs. 9 and 10 for a full presentation. To sum it up in one verse:

Hebrews 9:22 And according to the Law, alomost, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

Jesus said He came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, being at last in Himself the one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice. Without His death in our place, we still would be guilty under the Law.

Romans 2:12 For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law; and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law;

The father forgave the prodigal son after he came to himself and returned in repentance, hoping to be accepted as a hired hand so as not to starve, knowing he had forfeited the right to be called a son. The father could have offered forgiveness and restoration when the son was still carousing, but it would not have been accepted then, with the son still in rebellion.

Don't be so selective about what Jesus said; leaving out such things as:
"No man takes My life from Me, but I lay it down willingly. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again. This authority was given Me by the Father." "Do you think these Galileans (who were killed by Pilate) were more wicked than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Or from the OT, "The soul that sins must die." That could be taken as not only (or not at all as) punishment from God, but a natural consequence of sin that separates us from God the life-sustainer, just as a green leaf turns brown, shrivels and dies when it separates from the tree that gave it life.

Fr Chris said...

You're certainly right that God did not murder his and did not substitute that sacrifice for our sin in some kind of economic exchange. You've got no less a traditionalist than Joseph Ratzinger on your side on that point.

But even as a "reappraiser," I have to ask -- how is the liturgy of the church opposed to a correct understanding of the atonement? More importantly, what business does Elaine Pagels, who has made her career popularizing heretical, anti-body, anti-woman theologies, have telling churches, especially progressive ones, what do with their liturgies? In general, the list of theologians coming to All Saints to talk on this issue are not exactly theological heavyweights -- they're popularizers and journalists. You need to go deeper than the bestsellers rack at Barnes & Noble to get thoughtful perspectives on this issue.

Anonymous said...

"“the idea of God murdering his son" which of course is not the NT idea even when it speaks of God handing Jesus over (paradidomai) or even when Paul says Jesus 'who knew no sin was made sin.' How people like Spong and Bacon can traffic is such caricatures of the Christian position is beyond me. Spong has made a lifetime out of attacking straw men. Now this. Would that these Episco-lightweights would take on serious thinkers who speak of Jesus's death in our stead. One thinks back to the book The Myth of God Incarnate and its authors--only one of whom had studied modern theology as a specialty--and how flat-footed it was, and how ignorant they were of so much that had been done on the Continent (mainly) of a high caliber long before they qrote their sensationalist tract.

So maybe Bacon, Spong, and I will throw in Borg, ought to read some serious theologians on substitionary atonment and related topics (See Barth, Gunton, von Balthasar, Bonhoeffer, Juengel, Smail, NT Wright, John Stott, McLeod Campbell. . .the list is long .. .and they are all thoughtful.) and then get back to us. Yeesh.

Anonymous said...

Bacon is proffering New Age claptrap disguised as Christian theology. This kind of agenda-driven exegesis is precisely why my family and I are no long Episcopalians.