Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Atonement

[I wrote this as a post on The Narrow Path discussion forum, but since it came out pretty good and since I'm lazy, I decided to re-post it here on my blog.]

Throughout the history of Christianity there have been a number of theories of what the atonement was all about. Here, in a nutshell, are some of the primary ones:

Ransom: Sometimes called the Classical atonement theory. This seems to have been the most common view in the early church. It can be found, for example, in the writings of Origen (185-254 AD). The Ransom Theory states that at the fall of Adam and Eve, Satan gained dominion (ownership) over the earth. Mankind became enslaved under Satan. Jesus offered Himself as a ransom to Satan, in exchange for mankind. As Origen wrote: "The payment could not be [made] to God [be]cause God was not holding sinners in captivity for a ransom, so the payment had to be to the devil." Satan believed that by taking Jesus in exchange for mankind, he would gain power over the Father, and so accepted Jesus' offer of ransom. After taking Jesus captive and releasing mankind, Satan discovered that he could not hold Jesus, because He was sinless. As a result, Satan lost everything. Essentially, he had been tricked! C.S. Lewis portrayed the Ransom theory beautifully in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe when Aslan gives himself to the Witch in exchange for Edmund. Some modern-day Christians take this theory even farther, teaching that Jesus descended to Hell and was tormented by Satan and the demons for three days.

Satisfaction: The Satisfaction theory came to the forefront in the Middle Ages and reflects the culture of European Feudalism. It is generally attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, (1033-1109 AD) and is delineated in his book "Cur Deus Homo" ("Why God became man"). In the Satisfaction theory, the "ransom" is paid not to Satan, but to God. Man, by his sin, has offended God. However, man is completely unable to make up for this offense or satisfy God's requirements of holiness. Only Jesus, as the sinless God-Man can compensate the Father for the offenses of mankind. The relation to ancient Jewish ritual sacrifices is clear. Jesus willingly offers Himself as the sacrificial lamb to appease God and provide atonement on behalf of mankind. The picture here is of a feudal serf who has offended the honor of a feudal Lord. The son of the feudal Lord (and thus an equal in the stratified feudal system) steps in and satisfies the offense on behalf of the serf, thus restoring the Father's honor.

Moral Influence
: This theory is generally attributed to Peter Abelard in the 12th century, but hints of it can be seen in early Christian writings such as Clement of Rome, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Gospel of Barnabas. In the Moral Influence theory, a payment is not demanded, either to Satan or God. Instead, Jesus' life, death and resurrection serve as a powerful symbol of God's love, compassion and mercy. As we look upon and grasp what God has done, our hearts are softened, we repent, and we are drawn to follow His example.

Penal Substitution: This was the view held by Luther and Calvin. It is really an evolution of Anselm's Satisfaction theory. The "offense of honor" of the Satisfaction view is replaced by a debt of sin. Man, through his sin, has incurred a debt against God that he can never hope to repay. God cannot (or will not) forgive this debt of sin in any way other than the shedding of blood. The emphasis here is on justice. Jesus is fully man but (due to His divine nature) has kept the Law perfectly. As a result, He is the only one who can adequately pay the debt by incurring the penalty. He willingly agrees to do so. Again, we see references to the Hebrew sacrificial system.

Christus Victor
: This is the predominant view in the Eastern Orthodox church but the name 'Christus Victor' was coined by the Swedish bishop Gustaf Aulén in his 1931 book by the same name. Christus Victor harkens back to the ancient Ransom theory but instead of Jesus submitting Himself (temporarily) to Satan, Jesus instead battles Satan and the powers of evil and triumphs over them. The result of Jesus' victory is what the Eastern Orthodox church calls theosis: the opportunity for man to become holy and reconciled to God and, ultimately, resurrected like Christ. Roots of the doctrine of theosis go all the way back to Irenaeus' doctrine of recapitulation: that Jesus became what we are so that we can become what He is.

Covenantal: Jesus took upon Himself the penalty for the Jews breaking covenant (a contractual relationship) with God, not as a means of satisfying God but as a way of fulfilling the covenant from both sides. Thus, Jesus becomes the center; the mediator. In the Covenantal theory, justice is defined not in Western terms of quid pro quo but in terms of faithfulness to a relationship. As a result, one's inclusion into God's covenant people is no longer predicated on ethnic identity or the performance of Mosaic Law but entirely upon God's faithfulness.

There are other, less common atonement theories such as the Arbitrary Acceptance theory of Scotus and Ockham, but the ones I've listed are the most prevalent. Sometimes the names given them are slightly different and my thumbnail descriptions leave plenty of room for discrepancy. Most Christians, it seems, haven't examined (or been taught) the various views and so tend to hold bits and pieces of several or shift back and forth from one to another without realizing it.

All of these theories have scripture which seems to support them. All of these theories have their shortcomings as well as their strong points. Each one has been held by brilliant and devout Christians. These various atonement theories have sometimes been compared to windows in a house. From each window you can see a piece of the sky from a certain perspective. None of the windows allows you to see the whole sky however.

Two thousand years ago an astounding event took place. Somehow, though His life, death and resurrection, Jesus took away our sin and reconciled us to God. Theologians have been trying to find language to explain it ever since.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

From the Journal of John Churchman, 1740

In this journey, travelling in Talbot County, an elderly man asked us if we saw some posts to which he pointed, and added, the first meeting George Fox [the founder of Quakerism] had on this side of the Chesapeake bay, was held in a tobacco house there, which was then new, and those posts were part of it. John Browning rode to them, and sat on his horse very quiet; and returning to us again with more speed than he went, I asked him what he saw amongst those old posts; and he answered, "I would not have missed what I saw for five pounds, for I saw the root and ground of idolatry. Before I went, I thought perhaps I might have felt some secret virtue in the place where George Fox had stood and preached, whom I believe to have been a good man; but whilst I stood there, I was secretly informed, that if George was a good man, he was in heaven, and not there, and virtue is not to be communicated by dead things, whether posts, earth, or curious pictures, but by the power of God, who is the fountain of living virtue." A lesson, which if rightly learned, would wean from the worship of images and adoration of relicks.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

This Quaker thing...

I'm sitting in the terminal at the Long Beach airport. My flight is delayed, which seems to be the norm rather than the exception. One good thing about all of the travel I've been doing lately is that it's given me more time to blog. The other thing I like about travel is that I get a lot of reading done. The book that has accompanied me on this trip is "The People Called Quakers" by D. Elton Trueblood, which is a fantastic primer on Quaker history and theology. The thing I hate about travel is being away from my family.

Perhaps I should explain what this whole "Quaker thing" is about.
I am not a Quaker, at least not yet, but I've found tremendous resonance and affinity with Quakerism through the writings of Friends (as Quakers call themselves) like George Fox, William Penn, John Woolman, Rufus Jones, Elton Trueblood, et al.

In the past I knew little about the Quakers other than vague impressions of honest, simple, hard-working, plain dressing people noted for their integrity and peculiar "silent" church meetings.

I came to learn more about them through a circuituous route: A couple of years ago I was reading a lot of M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled, The Different Drum, etc.). I was at a Half Price Books store, in the self-help section, looking for another Peck book when my eye was caught by a book entitled Addiction and Grace by Gerald May (M for May, P for Peck -- get it?). I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit often guides me in my book selections and I felt a "leading" to give this one a closer look. Plus it was cheap (thank you Half Price Books!), so I bought it. Addiction and Grace ended up having a revolutionary effect upon my worldview and theology. Even though I had never thought of myself as an addict, May's book was (and continues to be) one of the most important things I've ever read.

I learned that, prior to his death, May was very involved in contemplative Christian practices, including those of Quakerism. This piqued my interest to learn more about the Quakers. Sometime later I attended a Quaker "meeting for worship" and found it to be a profound experience. Since then, I've been reading and learning more about The Religious Society of Friends.

Let me back up a bit. I believe that I've been on a personal journey of discovery, led by the Holy Spirit, for my entire life (I believe this is true for all of us). The ultimate destination of this journey is home, immersed in the presence of God. A quantum leap in my journey occured when I became a follower of Jesus in my early 20's, but it certainly didn't stop at that point. Rather, the journey gained purpose and focus. At the age of 40 I became a pastor (specifically, an Associate Pastor at a Vineyard). This was supposed to be an accomplishment, but it left me with the uneasy feeling of having more questions than answers. "If I'm a pastor in a church," I reasoned, "I'd better learn what that means." I turned to the Bible and found very little in it that corresponded to the role of pastor as I'd seen it portrayed in my 20 years of being a Christian. This led to a greater question: "Since the pastor's role is within the church, what is church?" I began earnestly digging to try to understand what the true meaning of "church" is. Unfortunately, some of my questions and conclusions were upsetting to the status quo. I left the church I was part of (not entirely of my own volition) and began meeting with other believers in a "house church". This experience was thrilling, transcendant, challenging, heartbreaking and invaluable.

The hardest part of trying to form and lead a house church was that I had no language or model for it, beyond books and blogs that I was reading (including, of course, the New Testament). I knew what church wasn't supposed to look like, but only had inklings about what it was supposed to be. Slowly the picture was coming into focus but, tragically, after a couple of wonderful years, the house church was rocked by a split from which it never recovered (the cause of the split was, of all things, doctrinal differences about eschatology -- I can think of few things more ridiculous than Christians breaking fellowship with one-another over doctrinal differences, yet it happens all the time). I was heartbroken and my confidence was shattered. There are a million ways I could have handled it better, but I didn't know what I was doing.

It was only later, when I read Peck's "The Different Drum" that I began to understand what had happened to our community (and why what happened was almost inevitable).

Anyway, via Peck I came (quite accidently) to May and via May I came upon Quakerism. I say "accidently" but I believe the Holy Spirit has been leading me by a trail of bread crumbs (and books) the whole way.

What amazes me about the Quakers is that the questions I have been asking and the answers I have been coming to about the church, church leadership, discipleship, community, social justice, etc., were the exact things they had worked through 350 years earlier! I've begun to feel like G.K. Chesterton when he wrote in the Introduction to his book, Orthodoxy:

"I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas... There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one's self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales."

Chesterton goes on to admit:
"...I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England... I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. If there is an element of farce in what follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last. It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious."

So too, I seem to have travelled a tortuous and winding route -- more often than not sailing through a fog with only vague shapes and muffled sounds in the distance -- in search of something new that was already discovered 350 years ago! And those adventurers 350 years ago only rediscovered something that had been there since the 1st century. And perhaps, across the generations since the earliest Christians met in homes and shared their food and Spiritual gifts with one-another, there have always been explorers who leave the familiar comforts of inherited forms & traditions & dogmas, and eventually come to rest on these same primitive shores.

So, am I becoming "convinced", as the Quakers say? Will I convert to Quakerism, or remain an independent "Quasi-Quaker"? If I can find a group of Quakers that still has the spiritual dynamism of George Fox, the moral clarity of John Woolman and the theological depth of Elton Trueblood, I'll gladly throw in with them. If, on the other hand, I find only a calcified, sleepy vestige of what once was, then I'll move on and continue to pilot my own yacht through these strangely familiar waters.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Quaker Wisdom

Boredom with the ongoing grind of the real world leads to predictable responses: "Let's rent a video/go shopping/surf the Internet." Spiritual seeking leads to a bunch of uncomfortable questions: "Why am I bored? What void is this boredom telling me I need fill? What will I discover if I just try to sit through my boredom?" Most days, most of us would rather rent a video than wrestle with our soul's hunger for meaning...
-- Henry Sessions, from Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity