Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Wrath and Atonement II

Thanks to those who have so far responded to my all too brief remarks. As Scot McKnight has noted, this is a complex minefield [I'm sticking with minefield because that's what it is!]. Again, I'm no specialist in this field and my comments should obviously be augmented by others who take a different perspective. But let me attempt to steer the discussion and thus provide further clarification of my attempted position.

Loren Rosson notes a comment from Stephen Finlay regarding The Passion where Finlay says: “It was clearly a serious and honest effort, well acted and so on. But there is no need to dwell on the gore that way...It is sadistic... But then, it really highlights just how troubling it is to say that God would ever require that of anyone, for any reason. God does not require anybody to be tortured, and certainly not as a 'payment' for someone else's sins. Atonement ideas say some awful things about God.

It was this statement that spawned my thoughts that found it's way to a blog on wrath and atonement. In the book Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, the authors note that scholars and theologians have neglected several biblical images of the atonement, and chosen to focus on one particular image. Their chapter on A Case of Selective Memory forced me to think honestly about what I believed and why I believed it. But then I read Loren Rosson's comment:

But any potentials for another Aryan Jesus (whether real or imagined) are irrelevant. If Jesus was in fact less Jewish than we imagine, then it’s the historian’s duty to say so. If the resulting portrait ends up being pressed into bad service, that’s a completely different issue. I happen to believe that scholars like Sanders, Fredriksen, Allison, and Freyne are much closer to the truth than the Hellenized crowd, but not out of fear that I would be condoning an anti-Semitic view of Jesus if I didn’t!

Now, you may be wondering what this has to do with anything. But this is how I see the issue of wrath & the atonement. I was concerned that I was merely reacting to the several critiques of atonement theory that suggested it was "cosmic child-abuse" and thus went to the data to find a new hypothesis to explain it. But I'm not sure this is the case. I am convinced that my training in exegesis and philosophical analysis suggests that I am reading the historical evidence fairly and accurately. And so, in the absence of any solid exegetical arguments that show where I have gone astray in thinking [or taken a flight from understanding, as Bernard Lonergan would say] I must press forward and explore this proposal.

I can't find in the New Testament a single reference to Jesus taking upon himself the abuse of God for the sin of the world. There is no reference that directly states that, and so I'm concerned as to how and where we get this idea from. Remember, the context of my discussion here is the atonement - not the wrath of God in general. The closest reference that we get to this idea is Romans 3:25 with the use of the word hilasterion. There is great debate between Dodd ["HILASKESAI, Its Cognates, Derivatives, and Synonyms, in the Septuagint," JTS 32 [1931] 352–60] and Morris [The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pg. 125-85] as to whether this word can be used to refer to expiation or propitiation with Dodd arguing for the former, and Morris for the latter. Thus, Dodd's interpretation of Romans 3:25 was that in Jesus’ death he was not averting the wrath of God but delivering humanity from the guilt of sin.

However, my proposal however does not appear to hinge on this discussion. For I am not arguing against the view that the wrath of God was appeased at the cross. That is another discussion, that is also complex. The New Testament [NT] writers do not seem to be convinced that Jesus needed to be tortured by GOD to atone for sins. What the NT is convinced about is that Jesus, his life, death & resurrection, was an acceptable and necessary element to rectify and repair our damaged relationship with GOD. But even this is beyond the scope of what my proposal is about.

What I am questioning is exactly how the Hebrew and New Testament writers understood God's wrath to be poured out, and especially how the New Testament writers understood this and the cross. My question is far more specific. Did God the Father directly torture and kill Jesus on the cross? To this, the NT is ubiquitous in it's silence and thus we can infer no such thing. And if we were to infer an answer from scripture, my argument below suggests that the answer would be "no, the Father did no such thing." In fact, my argument below suggests that this is entirely the fault of cracked eikons, who through foolishness, stubbornness and ignorance have exchanged the truth about God for a lie.

Jesus did take upon himself the judgment of God that Israel, and thus the world, deserved. I think a strong historical case can be made that at least Jesus believed this to be the case [even if Sanders thinks this is 'weird']. And the form that this judgment took, was the Father abandoning the Son at the cross to face the free will choices and evil which tortures and kills Jesus. This is the greatest sacrifice, because the Son embraced this vocation and saw it as his ultimate expression of love, both to us and to the Father of how to reconcile people back to himself .

The Father did not strike this child, we did.

Now there is much more to be said about this, and again exegetical responses are welcomed as I grapple with this immense and complex subject. But do me a favour and allow this small proposal to at least flow through your mind and thoughts as we contemplate this great mystery... Think carefully about what the bible actually says, and what we think it says. Ad Fontes [back to the sources] is the call I herald. And as we go back to these sources, what do we see?
UPDATE: See Loren Rosson's comments on Luke and the Cross.


Scot McKnight said...

Both Dodd and Morris are wrong about hilasterion in Rom 3:25; Dan Bailey's thesis (Cambridge) and others have shown the term means "divine mercy seat."

On wrath, though, the issue is that Rom 1--3 sets up the issue of wrath as somehow resolve in the death/resurrection of Christ.

There is no reason to get better than Rom 5 and Irenaeus and Athanasius: Christ became what we are so we could be come what he is.

The mechanics of the atonement remain a mystery, and it takes a series of metaphors to unfold it, but wrath can't be avoided because we don't like it.

The single-most significant piece of bibliography on this is JI Packer's The Logic of Penal Substitution. Whether we agree or not, that is the place to begin.

Ted Gossard said...

Interestingly the TNIV in Romans 3:25 footnotes their translation of hilasterion: "sacrifice of atonement" as follows: "The Greek for sacrifice of atonement refers to the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant (see Lev. 16:15-16)."

Ted Gossard said...

Thanks for your thoughts and your work. Very stimulating and challenging and good to try to get at what Scripture is really saying.

Isaiah 53 came to mind, verses 4-6 and especially verse 10.

Now I quote from John Oswalt in his NICOT of Isaiah:

"God wanted to crush (cf. v. 5) this man? God wanted to visit terrible pain (cf. v.4) on him? [see Oswalt's explanation there of his translation of the Hebrew] Surely not. The faithful God of the Bible would certainly not visit bad things on innocent people, would he? Yes, he would if some greater good would be served (cf. Job). Is it possible there is some greater good that all the terrible things the Servant has endured will procure? What could possibly be worth all that? It would certainly have to be something of monumental proportions.

"As it happens, what God wants to come out of the Servant's suffering is of monumental proportions. He wants human beings to be able to offer this man up on the altar of their sins so that he can be 'a full and sufficient sacrifice' (Book of Common Prayer, Ritual for Communion) for them, satisfying all the unpaid debts of their behavior, debts they could never hope to pay, but debts that if left unpaid would stand forever between them and a just God.

"What is the condition that must be met for the realization of God's purpose in putting the Servant to such grief and humiliation? The Servant's life (not merely he, but his person, his nepes) must be offered up as a sacrifice! This then is why the Servant could accept what came to him with such submission(v. 7; see also John 10:17-18). It was not that he lacked character or self-esteem or courage, but that he knew these things came to him from the hand of God, and that the purpose for which he was undergoing all these things was a great and good one. He was not merely suffering as a result of his people's sin, nor was he merely suffering with his people; he was suffering for their sin, so that the unpaid debt could be satisfied. For the purpose of God in Jesus' life, see Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23; 4:28.)

"If the Servant's ministry is to have any validity for me, I must take the broken self he offers and in turn offer it back to God in my place. This may be the reason that the guilt offering is specifically referred to here. Of all the sacrifices, this one was for guilt that has been knowingly incurred by the individual responsible (Lev. 5:1-19). Whichever understanding of the subject of the verb is taken, the point remains the same: the meaning of the Servant's suffering is to be found in God's intention that he should become an atoning sacrifice for sin." (pp 400-402; italics of author not included)

Ted Gossard said...

"The Father did not strike this child, we did."

Certainly not divine child abuse. The Father and the Son are so one in what is being done, though this does not lessen at all what the Son must suffer, though one should reckon that the Father suffers with him (triunity plus in all the Israelite's afflictions God too was afflicted; surely all the more here!)

I like your emphasis on the Father forsaking the Son, I believe on your previous post.

The Father truly sent the Son and sacrificed his "Isaac" to be the Savior of the world and that we might live through him.

Surely we can't minimize what the Son/Servant (I readily apply that to Jesus as the one who fulfills Israel's calling and vocation) suffers, nor can we avoid that that suffering is ultimately from the hand of God. Though certainly having the element of sin from the humans responsible. This is what I hold to now.

Well, enough of my rambling.

Keep up the good work.