The Problem with The Theory of Atonement: Making Sense of All the Noise

As I have often said in the past, the mark of a good book is when I hightlight the  heck out of it.

Having just finished Michael Gormon’s The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement, I’ve got a LOT of highlights from this book. Enough quotes to fill a book itself. This being my first Gorman, I’m also hooked. This book inparticular, with its emphasis on the atonement, has found me working through some of my own thoughts on the subject yet again. It’s not so much that Gorman is offering anything new, what he is doing rather is finding a way towards possible reconciliation by bringing to the surface the one thing that can make room for all of the theories to be a part of the ongoing conversation- the new covenant.

The way Gorman writes and outlines his arguments is really concise, which means he’s also an easy academic for any layperson to read. He’s very methodical in his approach. That’s not to say that this book won’t require time and investment from you. It is FULL of scripture, and it would be impossible to truly appreciate without having a Bible open and deliberately tracking along with his progression of thought.

If I was to summarize his thoughts as succinctly as I could, I would say this. The Christian Church and Christian history is full of different and even opposing ideas about what the atonement is, what it is doing, and how it achieves what it is that it is doing based on what it is. There is a good reason for why we have so many seemingly conflicting ideas about the what and the how (the fact that this is somehow wrapped up in the death and resurrection of Christ is essentially agreed upon)- Christ’s death and resurrection is in fact a multifaceted idea. It cannot simply be whittled down to a single notion of atonement or an atonement theory because the human experience is also, equally so, multifaceted. The fact that the Cross and the Resurrection is in dialogue with the human experience means that this complexity flows both way.

If there is one thing to understand about the word “atonement”, its that it is a complex word in its own right. As Father Andrew Damick describes in the The Lord of Spirits Podcast episode The Priest Shall Make Atonement, the word emerged from english translations of scripure (see Wycliffe) which itself was trying to make sense of an already difficult Greek word, which itself was also trying to make sense of an even more complext Hebrew word. It’s worth saying that atonement as a word, be it in Hebrew or Greek, was not some working theory, but rather a part of a larger story, a word that described an activity within that story. It might be fair to describe it in its complex Greek sense as trying to make sense of this notion of being “at one” with. More appropriately it is best to locate it in its Hebrew sense which, in a simplified sense, means to “cover”. It is here that we can find the context that plays through the story of Israel from Leviticus 16 that describes The Day of Atonement, important because, as Father Andrew points out, every reference in the New Testament to the word that we now translate as “atonement” is in reference to The Day of Atonement. Therefore, all of these atonement theories that we have are born from people asking necessary questions and wrestling with real challenges regarding how it is that the Cross and the Resurrection plays as good news in our life and in our world, but it is born from people asking these questions in their context with external factors playing into the word itself. Far from its original Hebrew context, we have tended to ritualize and theorize this word with all kinds of weighty concepts that these external factors have posited onto it, many of which continue to work to divide Christian communities, particularly in the Western world. This is something all of us should be aware of as we consider what it means to navigate the messiness of this divide.

The real challenge then, is to learn how to allow all these ideas to sit in dialogue with one another, to inform the other, because behind these ideas are reflections of the human experience of god in relationship to the world, and behind that is this experience as understood through the world of the text itself. It becomes dangerous when we get hung up on english words, equally dangerous when, as Father Andrew points out, we justify our english words with Greek translations, because translations by nature are making sense of ideas that are envoloped in a language that is not our own. It is dangerous when we make one single idea, and further our understanding of what that one single idea must be, the penitulant idea on which all else must then be based, because it is here when the conversation can no longer happen and when we elevate ourselves above what it is Christ is actually doing and create these divides. And while most people would love to stand up and insist that they are actually engaged in a conversation with the multifaceted idea, in truth most people are actually working to make their idea the right one. This is why we have so much division.

To press this sumary of Gorman’s ideas a little further, this is where he says that the one single measure, which becomes the very measure of his not so new new covenant approach to the atonement, is participation in this new covenant reality. Whatever the Cross is and whatever the Cross does, it must make sense in our lives, in our relationships. What Christ accomplishes on the Cross, we are also called to participate in. Too often what happens is people take their ideas of God and place them on this theological construction of a distanced other. This allows their ideas of God to then function apart from the human experience, and allows them to say things about God and God’s character that wouldn’t actually make sense within the human experience. That God is love, for example, means that the Cross is an action of love that we are called to imitate in our lives through loving others. What happens when we distance God from the human experience through our theological constructs is that the atonement becomes about protecting our knowledge of the Character of God rather than about our participation in the life of Christ. And this knowledge is divisive by nature of excluding based on who has this knowledge, and often it excludes over extremely problematic depictions of God’s character as one who stands above and apart from our own moral understanding. God is allowed to function in a different way than that to which humanity is called to follow. Which of course creates much tension. Again, for God to make sense, God must make sense within the love we are called to embody.

If there is one single thing Gorman suggests that plays through scripture as the central problem the Cross is addressing it is division and violence. From the opening pages of scripture we find the problem in Garden to be one of the serpent set against the people and creation (the land), people in contest with creation (the land), and people in contest with one another (the man with power over the woman). This plays out in a particular way as the Cain and Abel story, modeled and patterned after the Adam and Eve story, results in an outcome of violence. And violence doesn’t have to be murder, it can be anything that divides. And what we see in the story of Cain and Abel is that this gets perpetuated into a recognizable cycle. It gets stuck in an eye for an eye form of justice that sees a wrongdoing demanding repayment. The problem being that this simply increases as the cycle continues unbroken (read the Noah story). What Christ does on the Cross then is break this cycle by taking that eye for an eye form of justice, the kind that demands repayment for sins, and subverts it through the self giving love of the Cross. What Jesus does is take all of the sins of the world that find their root in this perpetuated cycle and says, I have taken it on myself. Therefore it no longer needs to be repayed. The cycle is broken. And in this Jesus can decalre the whole forgiveness of sins.

But, and here’s the catch. It is from here that we are then called to participate in this same action. This is what lies behind the tough phrases that say to forgive others as I have forgiven you, or the one that says to forgive “so that” I may forgive you. Participation in what Christ accomplishes in the atonement for our sins becomes the means by which Christ then breaks the cycle that holds us in bondage. It is by taking unforgiveness in all its forms and setting it at the foot of the Cross that we are free to step into the full forgivness of sins in a way that does not demand repayment or an eye for an eye form of justice. And we then enter into a new and greater way of peace and unity with one another, which Gorman argues is at the heart of the good news, the Gospel movement that we are called to imitate in building a culture of non-violence, and the atonement itself then is wrapped up in a multifaceted concern for every aspect of our lives, those who are oppressed and those who are oppressing. This is how forgivness works.

If you have the time, I highly recommend this espisode from The Lord of Spirits Podcast which I reference above.

It walks through the development of the word “atonement” over time and through languages and translations, breaks open the context of Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement, and locates that setting within all of the uses of the word atonement in the New Testament and Second Temple Literature and beyond.

They have so much informative and insightful context to share regarding how it is that we come to this word atonement and break it down into theories, and by helping us to understand The Day of Atonement it enables us to reclocate the language into a larger context, including the Cross itself. We miss the the ways in which the story breathes through the New Testament text because we have reduced atonement to a system. As we live the Christian life more, we will gain understanding and meaning in the story, of The Day Atonement and the story of Christ Himself. Just to give one small example, the way the episode helps us to understand the meaning of the two goats in the Day of Atonement story helps us to understand how it is that Christ takes on the imagery of this day within His own ministry. As the blood of the one goat which represents life is brought into the sacred space, it coveres the sacred space of God’s dwelling. The second goat is then given the sins that cover the people through the laying on of hands (not individual sins, but sins as a whole) and is sent out into the wilderness (not killed) where the “spirit of the goat” (Leviticus 17) dwells, the very entity that they saw as the source of all sin. There is no sacrifice, no putting the sins on the one who’s blood is shed, and no punitive, ritiualized source to the passage and descriptive of Leviticus 16 at all. This frees us to understand, for example, Christ’s tempation narrative, which flows straight from this story, the scapegoat imagery, the blood imagery as a “covering” rather than a payment, and so much more that we find in the New Testament text.

Perhaps what struck me most of all though in the podcast episode is the way Father Andrew weaves the knowledge of the material into the experience of Christian participation. This is what really matters the most as we navigate these ancient ideas in our present and modern context. If the imagery isn’t sweeping us up into the story of God and pushing into full participation in what all this imagery represents in the life of Christ, then it really is no good. Sometimes being freed from some of the constructs that we have used to protect our isolated spaces are necessary to let go of in order to create space for the sacred calling, the sacred vocation. And at other times gaining or regaining an awareness of how the larger story works can invite us to a sense of wonder and amazement and gratitute and humility. What’s interesting in the episode is tollow how it is that God’s dwelling place travels throughout the scriptural narrative. It begins in the Garden where God’s dwelling place is the whole of the cosmos with earth as His footstool. We, as God’s creation and the image of His being, were then placed in His temple (the whole cosmos) as His idols (a common practice in the ancient world) intended to fill the earth and bear witness of God through all the world within this diversified movement. Where disorder, and thus corruption came into the picture, with the flood picture a decreation narrative providing this pivotal point that shifts us from the garden to the wilderness, we begin to see God’s dwelling place, His temple formulated through this mobile tabernacle meant to dwell with His creation in the wilderness. They now need to find a way back to the Garden, to God’s dwelling place, and the tabernacle becomes this place.

It is when the people become a nation and dwell in the land that the temple is built and God’s presence becomes seen as in there while the wilderness then gets translated as all the nations out there. This is where we begin to see this loss of focus of God’s dwelling place being the whole cosmological order, the whole of creation that is said to be good and equally loved. This is why the story of Jesus becomes so poignant and beautiful, in that it moves God’s dwelling place from temple to Jesus Himself, who’s dwelling place becomes the whole of creation once again with us once again declared to be God’s image bearers placed in the temple meant to be a light to the whole world. This is what the story of the Cross and the Resurrection invites us into, is this call to participation in the temple, the Kingdom of God by Christ breaking open the realm of His rule to reach the ends of the earth and the whole of the cosmos and to all the nations and peoples that occupy it as that good creation. Jesus in effect sprinkles God’s domain Himself, declaring that this good will dwell and the sins and powers that bear their source are driven out into the wilderness. The invitation into this story then becomes one of our desire to be swept up into this narrative, this story of what God is doing. This is what Easter is all about. More than just a theory or a construct or a muddied word that divides, rather a person and a ministry who unifies.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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