[Rough Draft]

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"time" magazine's theories on why jesus died

i noticed today that time has a cover story asking the question "why did jesus have to die?" in the 12apr'04 issue. the freebie link to the mag's webpage has a little section presenting 3 theories: the "good vs. evil" theory, the "paying a debt" theory, and the "role-model" theory. (i don't have a subscription to read the main article, but there are a few paragraphs on each of these theories) so, i've been doing some thinking -- i grew up in the evangelical church in the south, where the "paying a debt" theory is most definitely "front and center." and, in large part, i still hold to that view. but i propose that it's not necessarily an "either-or-or" situation, but a "both-and-and" type deal. in a very real sense, gregory of nyssa (and my new hero, n. t. wright), st. anselm and peter abelard are all right.

but, lest we miss an important point this holy week, it seems we should always be @ least a bit wary of contemporary theologians' attempts, however well-intentioned, to play down the atonement. and i must take issue w/ time's assertion that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement was "originally formulated by anselm of canterbury in the 11th century." indeed, the idea has been around since yhwh instituted the sacrificial system in the ot (and, arguably, ever since blood was shed by animals to provide a "covering" for our fallen forbears in the garden of eden). despite heated protestations to the contrary from many corners, st. paul is to be lauded for "thinking out" the implications of the gospel and weaving it into his letters in more rationalistic, doctrinal terms -- and his letters are rife w/ the concept, if not always the exact words, that is "substitutionary atonement."

take, for instance, rom. 8, where we read: therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in christ jesus, because through christ jesus the law of the spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. for what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, god did by sending his own son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. that's substitutionary atonement through jesus' offering in @ least an inchoate form, yeah? read gal. 3.13: christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.". the implication of redemption via jesus' crucifixion is unavoidable except by the most strained reading, imho. or the author of hebrews (maybe paul, maybe not; that's not the point) writes in 10.10: we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of jesus christ once for all.

stop for just a second and look @ the overarching theme of all scripture -- redemption is always portrayed as freedom from slavery. moses led israel out of egypt (today's ot reading, btw) into freedom. the bible is replete with words translated as ransom, redemption, reconciliation, justification. hosea bought back his adulterous wife, gomer, and redeemed her from the slavery of an illicit relationship, bringing her into the freedom and acceptance of a covenant relationship w/ himself. if we are to read scripturally seriously, critically and faithfully (no, the 3 aren't mutually exclusive interpretive frameworks), we are left w/ one conclusion if nothing else: our salvation, our redemption, our reconciliation w/ our god came and comes only @ a cost.

in the apostolic preaching of the cross, his wonderfully pink (why pink??) paperback, leon morris writes: the natural meaning of the ransom saying is that jesus' death was in the stead of the many, he was to give his life instead of their lives . . . . where the redemption category is employed there are three aspects of the process of atonement especially in view. (a) the state of sin out of which man is to be redeemed: this is likened to a slavery, a captivity which man cannot himself break, so that redemption represents the intervention of an outside person who pays the price which man cannot pay . . . . (b) the price which is paid: both inside and outside the new testament the payment of price is a necessary component of the redemption idea. when the new testament speaks of redemption, then, unless our linguistics are at fault, it means that christ has paid the price of our redemption. to the extent that the price paid must be adequate for the purchase in question this indicates an equivalence, a substitution . . . . (c) the resultant state of the believer: in the scripture we see the price paid, the curse borne, in order that those who are redemed should be brought into the liberty of the sons of god, a liberty which may paradoxically be called slavery to god. the whole point of this redemption is that sin no longer has dominion; the redeemed are to do the will of their master. (leon morris, the apostolic preaching of the cross, 39, 61-62 (grand rapids: eerdmans, 2000)).

i'm not suggesting we go out and watch tpotc every week so we can really soak up the suffering of jesus and the magnitude of the price he paid. no, but i am suggesting that the atonement is an absolutely essential doctrine that the church must never relinquish in order to make christianity more palatable to our culture (or our theologians, thank you mr. crossan). remember, it's example, triumph over evil, and paying a debt. but we cannot allow ourselves to forget that it is nothing if it is anything less than atonement.

but that's just a thought. blessings for good friday -- sam.


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