Atonement & Emergents
February 6, 2009:
Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Beyond Liberal and Conservative
February 7, 2009:
Re-Visioning Jesus’ Atonement: Possible Reconstructions
As Mike puts it, “it’s exceedingly difficult to take Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and peacemaking seriously while also taking seriously a punitive model of Jesus’ atoning death.” In revisioning the atonement, Mike is attempting to overcome this difficulty while still remaining true to the historic Christian faith.
Actually, that last sentence is a pretty good summary of what I love about Mike and others in the Emergent Christian conversation: “In revisioning or deconstructing [insert doctrine or tradition], the Emergents are attempting to overcome [insert difficulty or contradiction] while still remaining true to the historic Christian faith.”
My own view of Jesus’ atonement is the one taught by Peter Abelard (1079-1142). I have quoted Abelard on this blog before, back in 2005, but I believe these quotes are worth repeating.
Abelard writes of Jesus’ death as a supreme act of love and self-sacrifice, drawing us to God through love, not fear: we are
“reconciled to God, because by the life and death of His Son He has so bound us to Himself that love so kindled will shrink from nothing for His sake. Our redemption is that supreme devotion kindled in us by the Passion of Christ: this it is that frees us from the slavery of sin and gives us the liberty of the sons of God, so that we do His will from love and not from fear. This is that fire which Our Lord said He had come to kindle upon earth.”The incarnation, the life and death of Jesus illustrates God’s love for humanity and moves us to love of God. This love is what saves us.
Obviously, this view of the atonement is at odds with the prevailing views that describe Jesus’ death as appeasing an angry God, or as somehow satisfying “the demands of a righteous God,” or as a ransom to Satan. Indeed, Abelard was declared a heretic in his own day (most of my theological heroes were!) and his books were ordered burned. Thankfully, a few copies of his works escaped the flames.
“The purpose and cause of the incarnation was that Christ might illuminate the world by his wisdom, and excite it to love of himself.”
“Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear. . .”
Abelard’s view is often called the Moral Example theory of the atonement, and it is sometimes caricatured as minimalizing Jesus’ death as “only an example.” To me, though, Abelard’s view elevates Jesus’ sacrifice as the “suffering servant” archetype of Isaiah 53 and affirms a relationship with God based not on fear but on love.