Saturday, June 4, 2011

N.T. Wright on the Atonement

This morning my son and I are discussing the chapter on Salvation in Alister McGrath's Theology: The Basics. A key issue is the nature of the atonement and the question of penal substitution. This led me to read an interesting (but rather long) article The Cross and its Caricatures by N.T. Wright which addresses some controversies in the U.K. in 2007. Below I have extracted a few paragraphs that I found helpful and challenging and are independent of the context in which the article was written.
I am one of those who think it good that the church has never formally defined 'the atonement', partly because I firmly believe that when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn't give them a theory, he gave them a meal. Of course, the earliest exponent of that meal (Paul, in 1 Corinthians) insists that it matters quite a lot that you understand what you are about as you come to share in it; ....
Robert Jenson's .... main point is that standard theories of atonement (of how, in other words, Jesus' death effected our reconciliation with God) have located the cross within conceptualities and narratives other than the biblical one, to which the gospel writers and Paul all point as the proper matrix for understanding the event ('Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures'). Anselm cut the cross loose from its scriptural moorings and placed it within a feudal system of honour and shame; Abelard, within a story of a divine teaching programme; the Greek Fathers, within the world of mythical satanic powers. None of these is without biblical resonance, but equally none grapples with the actual story the biblical writers tell, and the way in which the gospel writers in particular present the meaning of Jesus' death primarily through a narrative, a narrative which offers itself not just as an echo of bits and pieces of the ancient scriptures of Israel but as the continuation of that story and the bringing of it to its climax.
..... The biblical doctrine of God's wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates - yes, hates, and hates implacably - anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.....
Miroslav Volf. In his magisterial Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), he demonstrates, with sharp examples from his native Balkans, that it simply won't do, when faced with radical evil, to say, 'Oh well, don't worry, I will love you and forgive you anyway.' That .... is not forgiveness; it is belittling the evil that has been done. Genuine forgiveness must first 'exclude', argues Volf, before it can 'embrace'; it must name and shame the evil, and find an appropriate way of dealing with it, before reconciliation can happen. Otherwise we are just papering over the cracks. As I said early on, if God does not hate the wickedness that happens in his beautiful world, he is neither a good nor a just God, and chaos is come again.   ......the problem which Anselm already identified: you have not yet considered how serious sin is. It isn't that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on. That is what the classic Anglican formularies and liturgy say.....
Sadly, the debate I have reviewed .... shows every sign of the postmodern malaise of a failure to think, to read texts, to do business with what people actually write and say rather than (as is so much easier!) with the political labelling and dismissal of people on the basis of either flimsy evidence or 'guilt by association'. We live in difficult times and it would be good to find evidence of people on all sides of all questions taking the attitude of the Beroeans in Acts 17, who 'searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so', instead of 'knowing' in advance what scripture is going to say, ought to say, could not possibly say, or must really have said (if only the authors hadn't made it so obscure!).

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