The ever-changing face of Christ's atonement...

Douglas John Hall, one of my favorite theologians, has written:
If earlier ages of Christendom were particularly fixated on the afterlife and heaven, it was at least in some considerable part because THIS life was for most people extraordinarily brutish and short.  But in a context in which the average life endures well into the late seventies and it is not unusual for people to live to be ninety or a hundred, offering heaven and immortal life as the answer to earth's sorrows speaks in a direct way only the infirm and the aged - if even to them! At least in the "developed" world, the astonishing postponement of mortality that has taken place in the 20th century and beyond means that life itself - not death (not, at least, in the same immediate way) - has become the great question... The great question of people in our time is not, "IS there life after death?" but "Is there LIFE before death?" (The Cross in Our Context, p. 129)

Other contemporary thinkers have said as much noting that each major understanding of Christ's life, death and resurrection speak to us with metaphors and insights that are valuable to one context in time without ever being complete. "It is helpful to keep in mind," writes my colleague and predecessor in ministry, Richard Floyd, "that the language used to describe God's atoning work in Jesus Christ is metaphorical, borrowing its vocabulary and ways of thinking from others areas of life, principally the temple, the battlefield and the law court.  Since the metaphors associated with these ares are either dead, dying or have become decisively altered in meaning, they need to be examined carefully" in our generation.

Once, for example, not more than a month ago, I was leading a conversation at church about the peace and justice themes of scripture.  I favor "thorough" explanations of terms - something my children would sometimes lament saying, "Please, sweet Jesus, just give us the short answer, dad!" - when we came across the statement that Christ's Cross empowers us to live as free and loving people committed to compassion and action.  So, before launching into a response, I asked the adults, "How is this true?  How do you understand the power and meaning of the Cross?" and there was an awkward silence.  Please understand, this was not a group of Christian neophytes, but women and men of depth and profressional success who have been members of the church for most of their lives. 

So after a short time, I asked if it might be helpful to summarize the four key metaphors for what took place on the Cross - and it proved a valuable digression that deserves more depth. As Pastor Rick has written, "The Christian writers of the New Testament and the early post-apostolic period were content to repeat the key words, 'sacrifice,' 'propitiation' and 'repentance' without offering a theory of how they opperated.  (Because) it was quit sufficient (in their generation to note) that they stood for the truth of the Christian experience of the cross of Jesus Christ." (Floyd, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, p. 75) But not only are those days over, but our post-modern context no longer even vaugely comprehends them - and my friends in our adult study group made that abundantly clear.

So over the next week I am going to try to summarize the wisdom and meaning of five interpretations of the atoning work realized and experienced in the cross of Jesus Christ:  the Christus Victor wisdom of the early church, the substitutionary sacrifice of Anselm, the subjective evocation of Abelard, the non-literal insights of the Jesus Seminar and the challenge of Rene Girrard's "mimetic desire in human culture" or "scape goat" hypothesis.  Each offers us clues about something that can never be fully artituclated - God's amazing grace in light of human sin - and each is incomplete, too. 

Because, you see,  as Rob Bell notes in his new book, Love Wins, the time has come for Jesus people to challenge the ugly stupidity that says:

God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond in the right way.  Then God will torture forever - in hell!"  THAT understand has to be deposed and buried and NOW is a good time to help.

1) Painter's Cross @


Philomena Ewing said…
Sorry -Nothing to do with this post but I don't know your e.mail so this was the only place to put the comment
I've jus come across a great new piece by John Renbourne ( the first in 12 years.Here's the link -it's a long one so hope it works. If not the title is Palermo Snow and the album is renaissance Dance. Thought you would like it ! Please let me know if you get it.
RJ said…
hey hey: many thanks, my friend. You can email me @ desertjames@gmail, too, ok?
Black Pete said…
We need new metaphors. And while we're at it, how do we deal in faith with people who cannot deal in metaphor, but who think only concretely?
RJ said…
Yet another good question, my man, of which I don't yet have a good answer - except music and symbols and silence and acts of compassion. It seems to me that these, too, teach and lead some of us into the mysteries without a reliance on words only, yes? What do you think?

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