Monday, June 7, 2010

Christendom: A House Divided

In Christian theology there are three main theories of the atonement:
  1. Jesus's crucifixion was to appease the wrath of God. God cannot countenance sin, and in his holiness must obliterate sin. Therefore Jesus, as a representative of the human race, was nailed to the cross as a sacrifice for all of humanity's sins -- past, present, and future. That is, Christ voluntarily assumed the sins of humanity on himself and died in place of the rest of humanity. This theory, crudely summarised as it is, is known as the penal substitutionary atonement.
  2. Christ came to conquer death by dying on the cross. Effectively, Christ acted as 'bait' to draw the devil away from humanity, and in so doing removed the devil's hold on humanity. It's a compliment to the words Christ uttered early in his ministry, "I have called you to be fishers of men." This theory is known as the "Ransom theory", or more recently the Christus Victor atonement.
  3. Jesus acted as the ultimate exemplar, and when we take heed of his sacrificial love our moral intentions are influenced christward. In short, Christ's life and sacrifice inclines our morals godward, thereby sanctifying us to be in his presence. This is known as the moral influence theory of atonement.
In the past few years, there has been a re-visitation of these theories. Theologians from different loyalties have bandied about their prefered vision of Christ's soteriological efforts. One book in particular has risen to the top of the academic list, Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (2007). The book explores the various reasons for the necessity of certain theories, why the authors believe the theories they do, and how those theories are applied to everyday life.

It's editor and contributing author, Brad Jersak, admits his preference for the penal substitution theory. Nevertheless, in this article, professor and author Hans Boersma cautions against placing all one's philosophical capital in a single theory of the atonement. "The problem, said Boersma, is to take any one of these approaches and insist it is right and the others are wrong." This is sensible because prizing one theory exclusively excludes the beneficial points of the other theories.

The same holds true in other Christian academic applications. The novice theologian will place great import on a certain 'proof' of the existence of God. I had a fondness for the Ontological Argument back in my college days, but turned a snooty nose up at Kalam's version of the Cosmological Argument, for example. It wasn't until a good friend of mine, the late Hugh Hill (1958 - 2007) turned my head to the notion of a cumulative case for God's existence that I recognised it wasn't necessary to remain beholden to this-or-that particular 'proof' for the existence of God.

It's in that respect that I think it inane to cite a particular view of the atonement as the exclusively right view of Christ's death: it is the place of a novice or dilettante to throw one's lot in with a singular theory of the atonement.

To press this point a little further, it is instructive to note Boersma's final contribution to the article noted above:
Therefore, it is important to "bring humility to the table" and try to understand each other. We can "never say we have explained it all," said Boersma, since human language is "always inadequate to fully define the divine mystery."
True: human language cannot adequately define either the 'divine' or 'mystery'. Which is why I think Boersma would've done well to admit more by saying less. If Boersma had said in regards to the atonement that we can "never say we have explained it" and that human language is "always inadequate" we may have had a better rendering of the case. We would also have cause to graduate beyond the useless amateur quibblings of exclusivist atonement theory loyalties.

On a much grander scale, this is the same issue I have with Christian communities as a whole, if I can say that and make any sense. Let me explain. No-one is surprised when presented with the fact that Christianity is divided into many houses: Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Congregationalists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, the Emergent Church, the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, ad-seemingly-infinitum.

Each grouping considers itself the model of unvarnished and inviolate orthodoxy alive today. I like to call this peculiarity of Christendom "local orthodoxy by attrition". That is, if it's said long enough and loud enough, eventually everyone will concede that "that's what so-and-so thinks about itself, so just let them have their illusions; we know that we're really the true orthodoxy." The same psychology, quite interestingly, holds true for liars, too: if they repeat their falsehoods long enough, they eventually believe them to be true.

Such self-exculpating tactics only reinforce what they're trying to avoid. That is, by denying the notion of orthodoxy to other Christian communities while remaining loyal to another one, a person can only be left with patronising concessions to faith-traditions not their own. This means that one believes their own particular faith-community to be the purest expression of biblical community above and beyond all others. This is a mark of superficiality, specious reasoning, and religious snobbery adopted by most Christians very quickly after conversion. Catholics and Lutherans, especially with their notion that they are the "one true church", are quite masterful at perpetuating such insidious sophistries.

It is much more sensible to regard the Christian communities of the world as part of a cumulative culture for Christ than a "house divided against itself", to borrow Christ's portentous words. But as long as Christians bark and bellow over which atonement theory is better and more right, which 'proof' is more accurate, which faith-tradition is purer, more orthodox, and therefore more fully in the faith -- as long as the house of Christianity remains divided against itself, we can reasonably speculate on Christ's conclusion that that house "will surely fall".

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