Posted on June 9, 2016
I was whisked through my theology undergraduate work at such a pace and such an accelerated specialisation I never got to properly engage the atonement. It was like taking a coach tour of London by driving the ring road (M25) and never getting off the bus!
Atonement is basically the theology of what Jesus Christ has done for us, how he has taken on and defeated our sin and made a way for us to be reconcilled to God. It can often become fairly technical, so not being an technician myself I will try to speak about it as clearly as I can muster.
The title of this view kind of gives it away, Jesus dies in our substitute, in our stead. Different versions of this claim to describe the mechanics of how this takes place, but all of the sub-views basically agree that Jesus is on the cross as an innocent dying for the guilty, those that turned from God, You and me.
Christus Victor View
The title of this one is obscured because it is usually rendered in latin, but essentially it means, Christ is victorious. Victorious over what you ask? Well, over Powers, Principalities, Evil, Death, and the Devil. This view while including the cross obviously includes the ressurection (otherwise it would be hard to argue Jesus’ victored over death you see).
Moral Example View
Not sure what the true title of this view is called. Usually it is the straw-man view of evangelicals because it is seen as the ‘Jesus-wasnt-God-but-a-good-guy’ and we should try to live like him. While I understand why we want to push back on the whole Jesus-wasnt-God thing, we miss alot of the significance of Jesus’ example to us in life and death if we concentrate on solely one or both of the previous views. They leave us with a Christ who dies and rises for us, but not a Jesus we can follow.
The difficulty of the penal substitutionary atonement view
More recently one particular view within the subtitionary atonement view has been out of fashion. Namely the penal substitutionary, this is partly because it has previously been so popular and central that it is almost the only one evangelicals could articulate. The penal substitionary view is basically that we, humans have guilt from our sin which God the Father must judge and so He sends Jesus to take on that sin and punishment in order for us to be set free.
The unfortunate thing about this simplistic explanation of penal substitionary atonement is that God the Father comes out looking like a pretty un-good God who is angry and needs a place to take out his anger, which ends up being on his son. Not the rendering of the Gospel that sits well with most.
Now I knew that smart, sincere and pious people have been involved in formulating, articulating and defending this view, so I knew that there must be a much more articulate and well-reasoned way of unpacking this view of atonement. Well, now I came across one in a quote I happened across from Miroslav Volf;
Let us beware that some accounts of what it means for Christ to have died on behalf of the ungodly—what theologians sometimes call his “substitutionary” death—are deeply problematic. If we view Christ on the cross as a third party being punished for the sins of transgressors, we have widely missed the mark. For unlike a financial debt, moral liability is non-transferable. But Christ is not a third party. On account of his divinity, Christ is one with God to whom the “debt” is owed. It is therefore God who through Christ’s death shoulders the burden of our transgressions against God and frees us from just retribution. But since on account of Christ’s humanity he is also one with us, the debtors, it is we who die in Christ and are thus freed from guilt. Christ’s oneness with both creditor and debtors leaves only two categories of “actors” and thus negates the notion of his involvement as a third party. (Miroslav Volf, “The End of Memory”, p.117)
If that left your head spinning, then here is gist; Christ is not the third party and God is the second party who is expressing his anger, God is Himself taking on the debt. Every act of one member of the trinity is an act of them all. Therefore God takes on implication of the wrong that we have done, He does not transfer it to another somehow.
Which view is the right one?
Finally, I’m sometimes asked which view of the atonement I believe in, to which I fustratingly answer, “all of them’. It seems to me you can proof text your way to back them all. This is much like the elephant that three blind men are asked to describe by touch, and then insist the part of the elephant they can feel is that inherent defining aspect of the elephant.
We read and experience aspects of the overwhelming size of Christ’s atoning work and then get stuck arguing for our perceptions. Instead of an either/or dilemma I think to many atonement theories we can say both/and.
Something of a wordplay occurred to me today. I think I have heard it somewhere before1, but maybe you haven’t and so, I’ll share it with you.
Making it right before taking communion
I’ve been thinking about the practice of communion/Eucharist/Lord’s supper and the common practice of reconciling to others within the body of Christ before engaging in it.
In a world where our Facebook-projections of ourselves can be the only selves we actually know, this practice of asking for forgiveness has fallen by the wayside. We are addicted to seeing and portraying the best version of ourselves to the point that we have become callous towards the impact of the unlovely parts of who we are.
We don’t only have barriers at an individual level but also in our communities too. Rarely is there enough love and common affection found in Christian communities that can allow someone to confess sin to another and not from then on somehow be held at arms length. In fact, confessing sin or offense to one another often seems positively impolite!
How do I understand when I am truly at fault?
While I’m sure there are many causes in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, another challenge is our inability to understand where accountability or blame lies.
What is my part, what is their part? What is the fault of my nature or my nurture.
It seems like many of the sciences (neuroscience/psychology/sociology/psychiatry) are discovering impacts on our lives that lead us to believe that almost everything in our lives can be tracked back to something in our biology, our nurture and development, or our social conditioning.
All that being accounted for though, there is a clear need to simply take more responsibility for our own actions. This is why I think in the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be kept from temptation (our responsibility) and delivered from evil (a more external influence) and both of these areas need to be accounted for in our lives.
We humans can be ingenious at squirming our way out of simply reflecting on our action or inaction and saying sorry.
Putting Jesus back together again
After considering the lack of interpersonal repentance in our communion times, I reflected on Jesus’ plain and simple words as he taught the disciples to encounter him through the plain and simple breaking of bread and drinking of wine around a plain and simple table.
“As often as you do this, remember me”
Remember me. Of course the most straight forward way to read this would be; ‘make sure you keep me in mind’, but there is also a word play possible that allows us to see another angle of what Jesus is encouraging here. Jesus is saying re-member me, put my members, another word used for all the parts of a body, put them back together.
Are we re-membering Christ when we participate in communion? Are we putting the body of Christ back together when we sit around his table? I wonder if that is part of his desire. That we would re-member, connect his parts so fully that we are mistaken for one body.
The imagery of one body is used often throughout Paul, but our endless fractures which originated far before the reformation certainly make us look like a dismembered corpse of a church at times. On a more local level it often does not look much prettier. Petty disagreements, mountain from molehills acting as arms-length barriers between us. Holding us back from the image we were gathered to create – the body of Christ.
A little while go I spoke about the church acting as the image of the invisible God, in the way that Colossians talks about Jesus. I wonder if we are obscuring the image because of our pride? Our desire to stand haughtily like parliamentarians across benches rather than family around a table. It’s incredible what diversity and disagreement within familys can be melted away by the simple act of a mealtime together.
In the practise of communion we are welcomed into the very presence of God, encouraged to envisage ourselves as caught up in the very dance of triune life. A common act that catches us up in the awareness of divine love. These are the times where we can perceive the love of God in ways that allow us to be hardy and alive enough to love our enemies. When we rarely practise communion and remember our inclusion in God’s inner life through Christ we are left as fragile ego’s reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty who struggle even to forgive our brothers and sisters nevermind our enemies.
Practising practical Re-memebering
Finally rather than a meditation on forgiveness from 30,000 feet I want to make some practical suggestions towards practicing forgiveness.
- Spoken forgiveness should not be a passive-aggresive “just to let you know you wronged me….but don’t worry Im big enough to coldly release from your debt towards me”. You are responsible for your affections towards that person, make sure you are not motivated to communicate anything non-verbally and that you have released the debt2.
- You do not need to tell the whole story to the person or even most of the details. Take responsiblity for the grudge and offense and the broken relationship that ensued and repair it, dont dig it back up again.
- Think of the best of the offending party, normally people have little to no awareness of their offense and are mortified to discover they caused offense. Expect that rather than imagining all the ways in which they intended it from evil intent. It will help your heart to give them the benefit of the doubt and you will approach them with grace rather than fear.
- Make sure you apologise if you have held on to the offense for far too long, rather than justify it and make the person feel like they are to blame for your decision not to have an open conversation with them.
- Forgiveness is a matter of perspective. For the offender it is a one-time thing, once it is dealt with, they feel absolved. For the offended it is only a process of re-building trust. It is not fair to openly process with the offender if you feel like your unforgiveness comes and goes, take responsibility for your own process rather than inflict them with it.
Forgiveness is hard, but it re-builds and restores relational connection which by any measure is the major impactor of quality of life. We are meant to be a people who give and receive forgiveness like breath. Not that the offenses are light or meaningless but that we are captured by our own lostness if all our sins were held against us, and out of the overflow of the grace and inclusion God has given us, who are we to withhold that from other.
Let us re-member Christ, who was broken and disfigured, dislocated and wounded for us to be reconnected to God and one another. One body has been broken so that we can venture into wholeness, and we need one another to be the picture of Christ that we are called to be.
- Maybe through Isaac Aho who has been thinking about communion and will be writing something here about it very soon. ↩
- to the extent to which that is appropriate. I am mostly envisaging small offences here which make up the vast majority of unforgiveness in Christian community. Where there are heavier sinful or legal problems, it is not appropriate to forgive and forget always, other retribution may be necessary. ↩
Posted on May 16, 2016
I’ve been thinking about acts of giving, generosity and the jewish practise (adopted by many christians) of tithing. It’s a complex category of thoughts that often strike directly at the heart of some of the motivating factors of our lives. Safety, security, honour, freedom, identity and of course fear.
Recently I heard someone say that if the bible repeats something then God is trying to make a point. While I’m not entirely convinced by the logic of that, it is certainly extraordinary that the bible has over 2000 references to resources, wealth and money in it, while ‘faith’, a fairly central tenet of our, err…faith, is only mentioned around 200 times.
While the theology of giving has been repeated and debated a million times over in almost as many types of ways, I recently heard and then read about how giving affects us in our brains.
So…to the Neuroscience of Giving
Neuroscientists documented people’s giving, and found that there was a release of the happiness chemicals of the brain including dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is an endorphin that give people a sense of euphoria, while oxytocin produces feelings of tranquility, serenity and inner peace.
This reward system which exists in the brain is the same one that creates the type of joy that comes from eating, friendship and sex. It turns out even thinking about giving begins to produce these affects.
Other research has shown that giving can lessen the risk and symptoms of depression and day-to-day stress.
So is there any reason not give?
Well the short answer is, Yes, If don’t give if you don’t feel like it..here are two of the researchers from this study talking about it;
VEDANTAM: The interesting thing about generosity is that it’s a double-edged sword. Giving up things can be painful. But it can also make people happy. Aknin and other scientists are studying the conditions under which generosity fuels happiness. One thing they found is that being forced to be generous is not a good way to make people happy.
AKNIN: If you force people to act generously you can really undermine those emotional rewards.
I know ‘not-doing-it-because-you-don’t-feel-like-it’ is the opposite ideas that I’ve espoused before (preferring the practise to virtue process I spoke about here), but speaking purely based on the neuroscientific and therefore felt benefits of giving, if you are coerced, give because you feel guilty, giving grudgingly then it will not produce the chemicals mentioned above. So even if you believe the research behind this post and decide to give in order to get rid of stress and feel good it probably won’t work. The reason it works the way it does is because the generosity relieves an incessant focus on self.
Here is what the researcher from this post says;
When giving selflessly, “people say their friendships are deeper, they’re sleeping better and they’re able to handle life’s obstacles better,” Post says. “On a scale of 1 to 10 – and 10’s a really powerful drug like insulin in the treatment of diabetes – this stuff is probably up there around a 7 or 8. And the amazing thing is, you don’t need to go to a drugstore for it.”
So as Science Mike says, “It’s not only God who loves a cheerful giver, but your brain too”
So what does this reveal about how we were made
Giving basically is an act of good-will that connects us in a meaningful way to a person or a group. It seems that in relationships we need some kind of traffic to cross the bridges of our relationships to keep them meaningful. For example, time, communication, service, gifts, something to express our felt-importance in the connection we have made. Giving is one of the ways we can create this, giving by it’s very nature dis-empowers the giver in a physical way but empowers the less tangible aspects of that persons felt-connection to the other.
In an age where independence is rampant and a self-reliance is a highly prized virtue giving reminds us that we are inter-dependent creatures even at a purely biological level. Humans thrive in inter-dependence. When we think of our lives then, we are most fulfilling and renewing our inherent God-image when we become persons in relationship, just like Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Paul’s communities are the audiovisual aids he can point to, giving credibility to his statements about new life. To people who ask, “Why should we believe there’s a new life?” Paul can say, “Look at these people. They’re… Read More
Posted on April 17, 2016
Have you ever been driven into the wilderness by the Spirit?
It was a significant time in Jesus’ life, but these days most of our experiences of being driven into the wilderness lead us to rebuke the devil. Now, I don’t believe that God is causing all the suffering in our lives, but often we’re not paying attention to the purposes of God in our discomfort.
these days most of our experiences of being driven into the wilderness lead us to rebuke the devil Click To Tweet
When Jesus is in the wilderness the scripture says that he is with wild beasts. People who have studied period of history know that there were no such wild beasts in the deserts around Palestine & Israel during those years.
So what could it mean? Well I wonder if you have ever tried to be silent and alone for an extended period? Soon, your mind is rushing with things that you have a long sought to be distracted from. Issues and anxieties that have never been dealt with and that have consistently been pushed aside through busyness.
When we go to the wilderness we experience these wild beasts. The anxieties, accusations, the desolateness and the fear that accompanies that. In a place where we are apart from the comforts that the world around us creates. The comforts of ego, position, celebration, affirmation. All of the things that life in the city offer us. Those things become uniquely attractive in the wilderness.
In the aloneness we can be tempted to run from finding a truer inner voice that wants to take hold of the authentic desire to become better without the audience of others. We are tempted by the ego to use the time to devise instruments of manipulation and projection for when we return from our wilderness. These temptations are the wild beasts of the wilderness.
To live out our kingdom call we do need to know we are loved, celebrated, know we have a good father in heaven; all the things that are so readily accessible in times of consolation and fullness. But when we are consistently nourished on a diet of felt-nearness we quickly wither and realise how fast this spiritual manna passes through us and leaves us once again empty.
when we are consistently nourished on a diet of felt-nearness we quickly wither Click To Tweet
Just as in the lives of children, endless comfort does not build the resources needed in them physically or emotionally to live a flourishing adult life. In our Christian walk we cannot just reside in ghetto’s of christians comfort and enjoyment. Sacrifice, and the surrender that it brings in healthy mature people builds muscles of reliance and trust in God when he cannot be felt or seen. It develops muscles of trust, expectation and longing that orders our inner selves to look for the coming kingdom of God, even when it isn’t immediately satiating our felt needs.
In this season I don’t feel like I am in a season of wilderness, but I am spending time pastorally with followers of Jesus who are often experiencing this. Sometimes for the first times in their lives, others in ways more profound and feeling more deeply abandoned than ever before. The physical signs of God’s goodness; possessions, direction, relationships and health quickly evaporate and we discover that at least in part, things from God have become our gods, in that we cannot have life without them.
In that sense I feel like this season is a season of living on the edge of the city of the spiritual life looking out onto the desert. The desert where many friends currently are and I catch the passing fragrances of this desert time. I catch them at least enough to empathise the weight and struggle of these times. Counter-intuitively this is also another gift of the wilderness, our ability to empathise. Even though each person experiences the desolation of desert times in their own way, there are issues that are common to all humanity as they experience it. In the wilderness we build capacity to navigate our spiritual desolation, we learn something of the way home and the longing to get there. This at least can offer some gift of empathy and understanding, even if it can’t be fully communicated, a loving hug, a knowing look can be offered.
In the wilderness we build capacity to navigate our spiritual desolation, we learn something of the way home and the longing to get there. Click To Tweet
Often we can find a sense of God’s pleasure and presence in the desert in ways we could never experience it in the city. I often think of the parable of the prodigal son as a beautiful allegory of the Spiritual life that God has given us. Our times in the city can be full, but an excess of the city leads us into deep soul sickness (such as in the case of the prodigal son). The long walk home through the desert to the homestead, is often the detox we need to truly experience the riches of the simple homestead we once despised.
The older brother in the homestead shows us that too long in the homestead as well leads us to take simple yet powerful things for granted; the love of Father, a grounded vocation, a community, an identity. When we spend too long taking the homestead for granted we experience the things that should be more truly understood as gifts, and transfigure them in our minds as rights. And rights are what we deserve.
This rights mentality in the kingdom leads us quickly to a place where everything we receive is what we deserve and things held back from us are injustices and a violation of our rights. Receiving the goodness of the homestead as gift instead of rights mean we have the resources to cultivate true joy. Gratitude is the watering of the soil that leads to plants of joy bursting forth. I know from personal experience, joy cannot be made up or brought forth through sheer willpower, it is only the discipline of gratitude that can bring it forth. It is a discipline I am struggling to conform myself to.
So, the deserts of our spiritual lives both detox us from the excesses of the city and sharpen our appreciation of the simple realities that we can often take for granted in our lives in God.