This is my last post under the heading of “Created for Hermeneutics.” In the near future–after a little break this week–I will continue a discussion of hermeneutics. My plan is to summarize and critique some aspects of traditional Stone-Campbell hermeneutics in one series and then initiate another series which offers an alternative (though not disconnected) vision for contemporary theological hermeneutics. So, this post completes series one, but I anticipate two more series in the near future after a small break.
The theology of atonement is a huge discussion in contemporary Christian thought. In one form or another, it has been one of the leading topics for debate and rancour in the last 250 years. And it has a long, tumultuous history extending back at least to Abelard and Anselm in the medieval period. It has also been a source of some contention with the Stone-Campbell Movement as well.
At one level, we recognize that whatever happened in Jesus or through Jesus for our reconciliation (atonement) is an unfathomable mystery. It is ultimately located in the heart of the Triune God that is impenetrable to our finite minds. Whatever truths we might recognize about this act of God in Jesus are limited and partial. The Truth of the atonement lies in the mind of God and it is inaccessible to us as Truth–our finite minds could never grasp the infinite Truth as God knows it. It would be like a physics professor explaining quantum theory to a three year old. The Truth of the atonement will, I think, always remain an eternal mystery (for even in eternity we will not fully know the mind of God), but one which we will enjoy and plummet throughout eternity.
At another level, we recognize that the story of Israel and Jesus in Scripture offers insight into what God did in Jesus. The Truth is partially unveiled through a multiplicity of metaphors that permit our finite minds to grasp and apprehend some limited truths about the atonement. These metaphors point us to the Truth but they do not exhaust it, comprehend it or encase it. Rather, the metaphors–and the truths we apprehend through them–point us toward the great mystery that transcends our capacity to understand.
The Truth, then, is revealed metaphorically or analogously that we might apprehend in our limited, partial way some truths about the Truth. These truths are not the Truth–they do not contain the fullness of God himself as God knows his own work in atonement. But these truths do give us authentic insight (understanding) into what God has done in ways that are conducive to our limited ability to interpret and understand the significance of divine acts in history. The intent of this revelation is not that we might be perfect in knowledge (to know as God knows and to know what God knows) but that we might be conformed to the image of God’s son. The function of theology (including theologizing about the atonement) is performative, that is, that we might participate in the mission of God in the world as his iconic images.
Since our interpretations of the atonement (and texts that speak of the atonement in Scripture) are always limited, it should be no surprise that at various times in the history of the church particular ways of thinking about the atonement (or particular metaphors) have dominated. The patristic era emphasized ransom (usually a ransom paid to Satan) and Christus Victor (Christ’s triumph over the powers of evil at the cross and in his resurrection) partly due to the ancient culture’s obsession with demonic forces and their power in the lives of people. Eastern churches tended to emphasize the incarnation rather than the cross as the centerpiece of how God reconciles the world to himself as they stressed the mystery of the union between God and humanity. The medieval Archbishop Anselm emphasized the honor of God in ways that reflected the feudal setting of the medieval world. Calvin, a trained lawyer, emphasized the legal dimensions of atonement (penal substitution) as his context was focused on the nature of righteousness and justice in salvation. Hugo Grotius, the father of international law, emphasized the exemplary nature of the punishment Christ suffered as a function of God’s moral governance of the world which was a primary concern for international law on the eve of and during the 17th century’s Thirty Year’s War. The social movements of late 19th century political liberalism and Marxism emphasized a social justice that Ritschl and others also saw as the atoning function of Jesus through the progress of the kingdom of God. Those who embrace a pacifist tradition (e.g., Mennonites) have generally emphasized a transformative version of the atoning work of Jesus–it is not fundamentally about legality but about transformation as we become like Jesus. Contemporary Emergent thinkers tend to emphasize the missional, transformative and social dimensions of the atonement by seeing the political and social character of the mission of Jesus in his ministry as part of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into the world.
These are quite diverse understandings of the atonement. Which one is the true (absolute) understanding? Shall we say….all of them? But I would quickly add that even their sum total is not equivalent to the Truthin God’s mind. Nevertheless, each of them is, to one degree or another, rooted in a biblical metaphor and each of them illuminates an aspect or dimension of God’s atoning work. We should embrace all the metaphors and seek to understand their meaning. But it is also true that cultural contexts shape which metaphor we emphasize. In fact, the cultural situation may illuminate a biblical metaphor in ways the church had not previously seen. God can work through culture to teach his church what their their blinders did not able them to see in Scripture (e.g., slavery? oppression of women? Crusades?). In contemporary theology, for example, the recognition of the political language surrounding Jesus’ ministry and death has some quite thrilling implications as well as disconcerting ones for nationalism and patriotism. Different metaphors, surfaced and highlighted by cultural influences, gain attention and are developed in the church’s understanding. Our cultural situatedness influences our hermeneutical conclusions and sometimes this is a work of divine grace through culture.
Given the situatedness in which we understand and proclaim the gospel, it is natural that one or two metaphors might emerge at any given time as the most relevant to the times. Theology is, to that extent, culturally situated and shaped by its situation. Anselm’s satisfaction theory worked in the feudal era and Calvin’s penal substitution resonated with his hearers who were seeking legal assurance of salvation. It may be different metaphors today; perhaps liberationist or missional or incarnational themes proclaim the good news today in ways that are readily understand in the culture where penal substitution and governmental theories do not. Diverse metaphors enable proclamation to diverse audiences in diverse times.
Consequently, I would suggest that the diversity of atonement metaphors and their understanding is a good thing. These various approaches are diverse but true. They each point us to the mystery of what God did in Christ. Our task is to encourage dialogue and appropriation of each of these metaphors so that we might understand more and more of the mystery that is beyond our understanding. Sometimes the metaphors are in tension. Perhaps we can’t resolve those tensions (perhaps we should not try as we might force square pegs into round holes), but it should not surprise that since these metaphors point us to a mystery that is beyond our understanding that sometimes our finite minds cannot “make sense” of how all the metphors work together. We should be careful that we do not reduce the tension in order to domesticate the mystery. I think Joel B. Green does something of this in his contributions to The Nature of Atonement: Four Viewsthough I think he underplays the themes associated with penal substitution (I would recommend Hans Boersma’s Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition).
Hermeneutically, however, the point I wanted to illustrate here is how a theological-biblical topic might have diverse interpretations and at the same time they are all true. We might quibble with formulations, object to particular constructions of these metaphors or deny some implications that interpreters draw out, but the metaphors themselves are diverse and they bear witness to the Truth of the divine mystery through diverse but true interpretations of that mystery. Diversity, in this context, is a God-given good. And that diversity helps us perform and embody the story of God more authentically as God’s imagers.