Created for Hermeneutics–Part V (Theological Application)

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.

9 Responses to “Created for Hermeneutics–Part V (Theological Application)”

  1.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    No wonder we have problems with the interpretation of Scripture.

    This is what I always see.
    I get a new blue Toyota.
    I drive down the street and see Toyotas and a lot of blue ones to.
    The day before I get my new blue Toyota I don’t notice any Toyotas especially the color of a blue.

    I’m sure this has happened everyone happens to me every time I get another car

    What I’m saying is.
    As Christianity deviated from Scripture over the last 2000 years or so at what point can anyone theologically and hermeneuticaly say that culture is not predisposing them to see their blue car.
    To say nothing of going into a study with an agenda.
    Such as faith only is absolutely wrong.
    Now I’ve just bought a blue Toyota with bucket seats AM/FM radio and leather interior.

    It just seems to me that it’s so hard to have an open mind and then develop relationships that have an open mind and I’m not trying to be pessimistic at all.
    I guess what I’m getting to is that when you look at subjects with as many subtleties as what you’re saying that we’re going to go into we all better understand the first psalm.

    Blessings John Mark
    your brother
    Rich in California

  2.   Randall Says:

    I gotta mull this one over. In paragraph six you mention a lot of different concepts of the atonement. All of them may hold some value and tell me something of what Jesus did for me; but it is difficult for me to think they all hold equal value or are equally supported by scripture.

    We all place more emphasis on some passages of scriptures than others and I think there is room for a lot of latitude. I don’t even believe all of my own opinions so no way would I want anyone else to go there. On the other hand, the only heresies that are all that significant (to me) are the ones that deal with the person or work or Jesus and the work of Jesus is at the very heart of this post. To be understanding of the differences in understand between Calvinism and Arminianism is one thing but Pelagianism is quite another. It is possible to too squishy on doctrine in the name of we can’t understand everyuthing perfectly.

    We certainly do not comprehend God as well as we want to, but He has revealed himself to us in the words of scripture and in the person of Jesus in such as way tht we can understand a lot about Him. I think the same application can be made to the atonement God provides. I hardly see how Jesus taking my sin and imputing to me his righteousness can be reduced to penal substitution as it was understood by lawyer Calvin a few hundred years ago. The concept that Jesus died as my substiute goes back to the exodus, if not to Eden.

    I supect Paul had a pretty good understanding of what Jesus accomplished by His life, death and ressurection and I think he was able to communicate it to us pretty clearly. I don’t think it wasn’t simply that Jesus exerts influence over our morality or set the right example for us.

    Like I said, I will need a while to mull this one over as it goes to the very core of my relationship with God and His ability to communicate objective truth to me; and my ability to understand any kind of objective truth, even if it the understanding isn’t perfect.

    Thanks for making me think about it.

    I just read your final paragraph again and I don’t find it satisfying. In my gut I have the feeling there is more involved than a quibble with formulations, or “an objection to particular constructions of these metaphors. I recognize my gut reaction may not be the best measure of the words. Maybe I’ll deal with it better tomorrow or maybe you could help me understand it better.

  3.   markus z Says:

    hmm, would it then be enough to see Christ´s atoning work on the cross as PURELY social? it clearly is social, i think. i know that echos what you wrote, but my emphasis would lie with something else: is the incarnational intend, penal substitution and the transformational intent of the atonement not somewhat closer and more intimately connected to the death on the cross? would a social understanding alone be a high enough view of the atonement? i know, i am just proving that i fancy my own hermeneutical particularities. but what if jesus death for me ultimately only proposes a social agenda? what if it doesn´t contain any level of justification before God any more? does not our cultural setting, our “situatedness”, also hinder (as much as it can enhance) our understading of the atonement and all other issuers? one last musing: can we simply lean back and blame our “limitedness” in all cases when some views fall short of the biblical narrative. or do they (alwasy) just fall short of my hermeneutical boundaries?

  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Rich, I like your illustration. We are so easily conditioned to see the world in a certain way because of our experiences.

    As we listen to each other and seek out the multivalent nature of God’s acts with an open heart, we will have a deeper appreciation of God’s work among us.

  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Markus, you are quite correct that our situatedness can also hinder as well as enhance our understanding of the atonement. If we reduce the atonement to any one of the metaphors–such as the social or political, or even penal–then we miss something. Our cultural lenses are powerful in both directions.

    Yet, one metaphor or another might take a cultural lead as an entry point for a specific culture or time. As it introduces the gospel, then then other metaphors may enhance a culture’s understanding of the gospel as they live out the story.

    I’m not sure I would say that one metaphor is more at the heart or intent of the atonement. To say that Jesus died for our sins is to say something political, social, moral, legal, reconciling, etc. It is to say that God acted to redeem us. If we make too much of one, we miss something else, but if we miss one, then we miss something important. But even if understand very little at all, God nevertheless has acted to redeem and he does redeem us even without our limited, fallible, and flawed understandings.

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Randall, I suppose what holds “equal value” is in the eye of the beholder but that they are all supported by biblical metaphors I don’t find problematic.

    These biblical metaphors do give us understanding (apprehension) of the work of God in Jesus, but they do not exahust that work nor would I think any one particular metaphor the metaphor.

    If the theory of penal substitution was so central to the gospel and so clearly rooted in Exodus, etc., why did it take so long for the church to recognize it and articulate it as Calvin did? His situatedness enable him to see something that is there that others did not see before him. The contemporary Evangelical church sees it so clearly because of Calvin and because it was one of the Five Fundamentals of the early 20th century in the fight against Modernism. It has been emphasized as a watershed line between conservatives and liberals. The emphasis on it has been so strong that it has eclipsed every other metaphor. I think that is a cultural and situational influence that has made it more important than it is in the biblical text.

    I, too, believe there are objective parameters which shape our reading of the text. But I think there are also subjective and cultural dimensions which highlight particular aspects/metaphors for readers. I think that is a good thing unless we absolutize our particular subjection and cultural appropriations as if they are the Truth or deny the import of other biblical metaphors.

    Was Pelagianism all bad? It all depends on how you define it and how one understand’s Pelagius own intent and teaching. In my opinion, it is not as all pernicious as the double predestinarianism of Augustine. 🙂 I think Augustine, in many ways, created a straw man. Even Pelagius was not Pelagian (the way it is usually defined in polemical contexts).

  7.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Okay how about this,
    God reveals himself in Scripture and his intent for creation.
    This revelation explains how god accomplished his intent without the compromise of his nature through the Christ.

    Extremely difficult to keep concepts short.

    I will call that the “circle of truth”.
    The church’s responsibility, is to walk in the circle of truth as revealed, Ephesians 4.

    If the center of the circle never changes, and the size of the circle never varies.
    The only reason for anything other than a concentric circle, that the church forms, are preconceived concepts that are not tossed out because of the predisposition of our nature to either be subjective or objective thus making our circle wobble off-center in certain fundamental aspects giving the appearance of being good and true.
    All concepts being relative from a cultural point of view.
    When the circle wobble’s as it did in the 15th century preconceived fundamental concepts had to be redefined.
    To me it’s the preconceived fundamental concepts, that skews the intent that God revealed in the Scripture because we are predisposed to have it my way, and not his way.

    It should be an interesting aspect of this endeavor to see at what point a metaphor becomes mixed and so skew the circles the fundamental intent.

    From a personal point of view subjective to be sure objective hopefully.
    A man like John Mark and taking all that the restoration movement Entails. And those of us seeking congruence can make the churches circle of truth somewhat more concentric to the father’s intent. Even though we all still have a predisposition to dichotomy.

    Blessings rich in California

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Every century, because it is inherent within our fallenness, has had the predisposition to the dichotomy rather than enjoying the diversity of metaphors. I doubt if we are any different, and I know that I am not personally any different. I gravitate to certain metaphors, but this is why I need to listen to others, listen to the history of the church, listen to culture because God may use any of those means to illuminate me by the power of his Spirit.

  9.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    It seems to me quite interesting that God gives us a do over, I mean everybody wants a do over, right.
    It really seems to amaze me always that God’s own people, had spiritually adulterated themselves to the extent that they crucified God’s servant.
    In this world where the gospel was started, we have all of the ancient cultures and all of their concepts of God and all of their concepts of philosophy.
    I think it would be wise to take into consideration whenever were talking about the anti-Nicene fathers.
    How much of the written word did they have? To formulate any concepts without intermingling concepts that they were predisposed to accept because of their culture.
    I would say because of the limited availability of the writings, that metaphors would be weighted to the side of mysticism.
    As time goes on until the fourth or fifth century.
    Then we go into the wonderful dark ages.

    And men sail off into the Mystic.
    I know this is oversimplistic picture.
    quite honestly John Mark how long did it take men to get a good translation of the New Testament, how long is the papacy in control.
    Culturally speaking I’m sure that a lot of the metaphors are relevant.
    It’s kind of like I said we all get a do over.
    Seems to me that it is taken an awful long time, just to say repent and be baptized every one of you.
    there is something twisted all out of shape here.

    I’m not saying to draw a line in the sand.

    I’m just saying when you shake the dust off your feet and walk away.

    my brother
    Rich in California
    anyway I’m tired 1130 I’m going to bed
    I almost deleted this post

Leave a Reply