1.19.2009

A New Kind of Christian -- The Trilogy

A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey
The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of A New Kind of Christian
The Last Word and the Word After That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity

I already wrote a little about the first book by Brian McLaren. The other two are more of the story of Dan and Neil and friends as they muddle their way through the shift to postmodernity. The second includes a retelling of the Old Testament. The third includes an exploration of the meaning of Jesus’s life and ministry. I just finished them all, in the new paperback edition from Jossey-Bass, thanks to The Ooze Select Bloggers book reviewing program.

Other people have written about this trilogy to describe how this is different from other kinds of Christianity. I can only guess at how shocking it all is to people steeped in fundamentalist Christianity. For me, raised in the mildest form of Christianity, having left even that, and now coming back, hungry for more, it barely raises an eyebrow. I’m interested in how these books and the various theories outlined can help me to articulate an understanding of Christianity that I can own, heart and mind. Heresy trials are just not that important to me – that’s probably why I fit as a liberal Quaker.

None of the theories of atonement, presented in some detail here (or anywhere else), make much sense to me. None of them rings true in my heart, in my relationship to God or in my Quaker tradition. The execution of Jesus seems more like a logical consequence of disrupting the status quo. It seems like a human response, not unlike our government’s approach to terrorists; it doesn’t seem to reflect a divine intention. The resurrection is a mystery I’m interested in exploring, not how Jesus ended up on the 1st century version of the electric chair.

The mixing of fact and fiction makes the books a puzzle. The temptation is to read them as a roman a clef – and figure out who is who. But McLaren warns against that, and I think he’s smart enough to have made composite characters who don’t intentionally line up with real people – or maybe I just don’t know enough about the evangelical world to find the clues.

I think their greatest value may be to people who still think that they’re the only ones asking these questions and struggling with these ideas. McLaren illustrates nicely the way people who are apparently nodding their heads and following along in mainstream evangelical churches may quietly be questioning it all, and how they may not know how to bring up their questions for fear of looking foolish or less faithful.

I have seen the same thing happen in Quaker meetings, both folks who are afraid to bring up their attachment to Jesus and their secret longing to follow Him more closely and openly, and folks who are questioning the whole existence of God, who know that the image they had of God doesn’t work anymore but can’t imagine any other way to understand what people mean by the Divine. I have personally heard a Friend say in a small group, “I don’t think there’s anybody in my Meeting I can talk to about this,” and someone else say, ‘Just yesterday, so and so said the same thing to me, and I think she’s from your Meeting.”

We have to be brave enough to speak our understanding of the Truth. Sometimes other people will disagree, and discourage us, but we have to keep trying. Dan, in the Trilogy, has his whole life shaken up. He nearly loses his job in a way that might make it impossible for him to find another one in the same field. Neil already went through that sacrificial transition. Other characters feel like their lifelong faith or atheism is being shaken to the core. Many people feel the same way in real life. This is where I think the example of Jesus can help us to be brave enough to take the punishment that we may or may not know is coming. If the possibility of life after death encourages you, then every day is a great opportunity to gain another star in your crown. If simply the witness of faithful living on this Earth encourages you, then Jesus is a fine example. Brian McLaren is another.

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23 Comments:

Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

Outstanding post.

I'm caught up in your one paragraph about atonement theories and resurrection. First off, yes, resurrection is the more "important" part of our faith, yet we haven't articulated (fought?) about its intricacies as much as the cross. You raise the proper response, "Why is that?"

Second, having said that, the atonement is something that's taken up brain cycles in my head a lot in the last couple of years. My own position launches from where you are: yes, crucifixion is a natural consequence of disrupting the status quo. But I think of the divine intention to do something about a wayward creation, not by overpowering it, not by speaking a word and re-making everyone in the image of God once and for all with no possibility of rejection...instead of all that, the divine intention to submit God's self to all the evil humanity could muster, and through that sacrifice bring about redemption.

If God did thus...then we have a peace testimony that is rooted in the action of God. This is where I have come down, thanks to Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace, with some help from "Stricken by God? Nonviolent identification and the victory of Christ."

1/20/2009 7:44 PM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Maybe because I'm married to a reverted Catholic who loves to relate hard core death-of-saint stories, I've learned to appreciate the suffering side of Christianity. If we accept that Jesus is God and capable of anything then the resurrection is a cakewalk. The harder thing for me to imagine is God taking all that abuse. Jesus put up with hostile secular and church authorities, with doubters and with plotters, and all he had on his side were a ragtag band of fickle followers. At any point in that journey to the cross he could have evaporated the bonds, turned his adversaries to salt, or re-flooded the earth, or ordered up a plague of locusts. But he didn't. He took it. He gave them all the other cheek. He let himself be the sacrificial lamb. He forgave them and in so doing forgave us all. After three days he called the experiment off and resurrected, no trick in that if you're God, right?

But back to your point about McLaren. Yes, it's good to have our voices and not be afraid to use them. The thing about bold spiritual statements is that they usually scare us more than they offend others. Now I should say that I couldn't be the outspoken person I am if I hadn't lost my job but then yes: maybe there's a glimpse of that suffering side of the faith.

I've found it hard to pick up my Ooze books because the starting point is sooooo different from where I am that the arguments don't make much sense but maybe I should try skipping to page 180 of each and start reading where they start sketching out their idea. Maybe there won't be so much of a gap.

1/20/2009 8:24 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, guys. I will keep working on the atonement/resurrection theories. A little bit. I still don't get why the atonement is such a big deal, but perhaps one day I will be given eyes to see and ears to hear.

The Ooze books are definitely a mixed bag, but that's kind of the risk. I'm going to try to get caught up with reviewing the ones I've already read.

1/20/2009 11:12 PM  
Blogger Hystery said...

Robin, I too was reared in the mildest of Christian homes, one in which there was no hell and no sense of the ultimately sinful human soul. The emphasis on the Christ story remained on the teaching rather than on the execution of the man. Add to this the study of biblical history and criticism and the study of more ancient stories sharing the same mythological motif of the resurrection story and you create a person who has a really difficult time conflating the story of a first century teacher with a god/man caught up in a cosmic battle of good and evil utilizing a barbaric execution method. The redemption story as it is most frequently told in the modern world took time to develop. It has historical context and is not, by any means, the only possible interpretation. That is not to say that it does not have power, even beautiful power, in the lives of many. I just maintain that it is not the only valuable, faithful interpretation of the meaning of the death of the man who came to be known as the Christ. Beginning with the first generations of the Jesus Movement, there were always alternative interpretations. It is helpful, I think, to become aware of the cultural diversity and historical influences on the development of various christologies before we judge anyone's faith or presumed lack thereof.

1/21/2009 11:08 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you, Hystery. This is another thoughtful contribution to the discussion.

1/21/2009 11:06 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

It's important, I think, to understand how very loaded the idea of "the Atonement" is in the Quaker world. From the Orthodox point of view, the Hicksite-Orthodox split was fundamentally due to Hicksite apostasy on this doctrine; everything else was secondary. And from an Evangelical Friends or right-wing-FUM point of view, liberal apostasy on this matter is still a baseline reason for not accepting liberal Friends as coreligionists.

The Hicksites had a hard time understanding the importance of this disagreement even at the time of the Hicksite-Orthodox split; they honestly thought the split was about power distribution, and the misuse of power, in their Yearly Meetings. The fact that the Hicksites didn't comprehend how important their own apostasy was, regarding the Atonement, just flabbergasted the Orthodox.

And liberal Friends continue to have a hard time understanding the importance of the disagreement today. They tend to assume that we can somehow "agree to disagree" about the Atonement and simply leave it at that.

But the post-Calvinist, post-Wesleyan, and post-Holiness doctrines of the Atonement, that dominate in the pastoral branches of Quakerism, dictate views of sin, of the path to salvation, and of the purpose of religious activity, that are quite different from the views prevailing among liberal Friends. And the views that the right-wing doctrines of the Atonement dictate, make left-wing thinking on these matters look — not just mistaken — but downright dangerous to the soul.

The difference in thinking about the Atonement, between the right and the left, is one of the key things that keep "convergence" from happening. For why would people on the right want to raise their children in a "converged" congregation where things are taught that imperil the soul? You tell me.

1/22/2009 1:30 PM  
Blogger David Carl said...

Robin,

You might enjoy "Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement" by Mark D. Baker. Its a compilation of many different essays and talks on the subject from a variety of perspectives. Its still not an entirely comprehensible subject to me, yet I found the book helpful.

David Carl

1/23/2009 1:34 PM  
Blogger patrickruth57 said...

For me atonement stands on death, resurrection stands on life. The essential teachings of Jesus affirm life and I just can't square that with an old system of blood sacrifice thrown on top of Jesus unfortunate death as an explanation of said death. This to me is one of the reasons that Quakers are correct in not viewing the biblical witness as the "last word"and need to carefully read and discern. Robin I think you have chosen the focus that builds your spirit and your daily life. Keep on exploring that wonder. Just as an ironic aside, my favorite passage(Hebrews 12:1) from the Bible is right smack in Hebrews- a long meditation on the atonement. Thanks and later Patrick Ruth

1/24/2009 11:49 AM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

Actually, Patrick Ruth, the great majority of the 85% of "Quakers" who are pastoral, rather than unprogrammed, definitely do view the biblical witness as the "last word" on the subject of the Atonement!

So do a very large number, perhaps even a majority, of Conservative unprogrammed Friends.

1/24/2009 2:06 PM  
Blogger James Riemermann said...

Marshall writes:

"And liberal Friends continue to have a hard time understanding the importance of the disagreement today. They tend to assume that we can somehow "agree to disagree" about the Atonement and simply leave it at that."


This *might* be true of that relatively small proportion of liberal Friends who long for or expect the convervative and evangelical branches to come together with the liberal branches at some point. It's not true of me, though, and I would venture to say, it's not true for many of those liberal Friends who feel unapologetic about the radical universalism of our faith. The branches may well find fruitful ways to work together where we can, but that's not the same as uniting.

I think most of us liberal Friends are fairly clear, if not all that vocal, that an orthodox sort of Christianity, a view that our immortal souls are imperiled unless we are saved by Christ, is incompatible with modern liberal Quakerism.

This does not mean that modern liberal Quakerism is incompatible with Christianity itself. On the contrary, there are great numbers of Christians, within and outside of Friends, who long ago left that sort of one-way damnation theology behind. This sort of Christianity is by no means in contradiction with radical universalism. In fact they fit together quite nicely.

1/24/2009 6:06 PM  
Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

This has been the most eye-opening thread I've read in a very long time. It's helping me understand much more where liberal Friends are coming from.

I think Marshall Massey is very right...these issues are precisely at the heart of our past (and present) divisions as Friends, and speak a lot, therefore, to convergence.

I don't feel that my other thoughts are appropriate here in this forum; but I'll try to tackle them in my own atonement blog post in the near future.

1/25/2009 12:37 AM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

James Riemermann quoted my earlier statement: "...Liberal Friends continue to have a hard time understanding the importance of the disagreement today. They tend to assume that we can somehow 'agree to disagree' about the Atonement and simply leave it at that."

James then commented, "This *might* be true of that relatively small proportion of liberal Friends who long for or expect the convervative and evangelical branches to come together with the liberal branches at some point."

It was certainly true of a majority of Friends in the liberal meeting I used to attend in southeast Denver, even though none of them longed for or expected any rapprochement with the evangelical Friends in northwest Denver and Wheat Ridge. (They had had a very nasty separation from those evangelicals in the 1940s, and the painful memories were still very much alive.)

There were Christians who attended that liberal meeting in those days, who believed in a traditional understanding of the Atonement. The liberals who dominated that meeting thought they could simply "agree to disagree" with those Christians. And yet, in the early 1990s, a minority of those very same liberals drove some of those same Christians out of the meeting, because they could not tolerate the Christians' Atonement-oriented ministry in meeting for worship.

James went on to write that what I said is "...not true of me, though, and I would venture to say, it's not true for many of those liberal Friends who feel unapologetic about the radical universalism of our faith. The branches may well find fruitful ways to work together where we can, but that's not the same as uniting."

Well, James, if that is so, I'm not sure that the word "liberal" really is the right one to describe your variety of Quakerism. Your statement sounds left-wing, but somewhat illiberal, in that it is neither wholly broad-minded nor wholly inclusive.

I note that some of Elias Hicks's criticisms of the Atonement doctrine were illiberal in much the same way.

James continued, "I think most of us liberal Friends are fairly clear, if not all that vocal, that an orthodox sort of Christianity, a view that our immortal souls are imperiled unless we are saved by Christ, is incompatible with modern liberal Quakerism."

I think many Friends in Iowa (FUM), in Western (FUM), in the east African FUM yearly meetings, and in EFCI, are clear on that fact, too. That has a great deal to do with the reason why they want the dually-affiliated yearly meetings (Baltimore, New York, New England, Canada) out of FUM.

"This does not mean that modern liberal Quakerism is incompatible with Christianity itself. On the contrary, there are great numbers of Christians, within and outside of Friends, who long ago left that sort of one-way damnation theology behind. This sort of Christianity is by no means in contradiction with radical universalism. In fact they fit together quite nicely."

Well, friend, John 14:6 comes to mind, and to a slightly lesser extent John 10:1-21 (which references both the Atonement and unbelievers' disbelief in the Atonement); these passages indicate that no one is saved except by and through Christ and, when confronted with Jesus, through an actual acceptance of him.

One can have a kind of Christian Universalism that subscribes to these teachings, rationalizing the problem by saying that the inward Guide is one with Jesus, and therefore it is as truly the saving Christ as the historical Jesus Christ was; that was indeed what most Friends believed up to around 1800, and what more traditional Friends believe even today. But I personally don't see how any Christianity can be worthy of the name if it rejects these teachings in whole or in part.

Greg, I look forward to your own comments.

1/25/2009 12:33 PM  
Blogger Bill Samuel said...

You might want to look at the article The Atonement, by Arthur O. Roberts. He looks at five different theories without settling on one.

One of the differences in the modern approach and the post-modern one is that the modern approach wants to nail everything down. The post-modern approach accepts some mystery, as did pre-moderns, and isn't so inclined to put everything into a box.

The atonement is very important in Christian understanding, but that does not mean one has to come down with a neat theory about it. I think it is important to accept the atonement, but not to have it all figured out. The urge to have it all figured out tends to border on blasphemy - it tends to put us in God's place.

It is hard for liberals and moderns to really grasp that Jesus Christ is "the way, the truth and the light." But as Leonard Sweet says, "God didn’t send us a principle, he sent us a person; not rules, a Redeemer; not a statement, a Savior; Jesus died on the Cross to restore us to a right relationship to the Father; Christianity is not about lifting up principles, propositions, or points . . ."

The atonement is part of this call to relationship. It doesn't matter much your intellectual theory about the atonement, what matters is that you understand and live by the relationship Jesus sought to bring us into.

1/25/2009 6:31 PM  
Blogger Hystery said...

This is such a stimulating conversation. I am particularly interested in the idea that acceptance of the atonement can be a litmus test of Christian faith. It has not been my experience that such an understanding is universal although, clearly, it is typical. Given that this "typical" is a result of the development of a canon and the systematic and sometimes violent exclusion of other interpretations throughout the history of an evolving Christianity, I am loathe to give unquestioning credence to the spiritual perfection of such positions. I don't and can't deny the value of the atonement to other believers and don't necessarily aim to deny it, only to call it into questions as a requirement of belief. I find it less than helpful when matters of faith and scholarship devolve into a kind of "Nuh huh!" "Uh huh!" dualism.

I accept that for the Johannine author, Jesus was the way the truth and the light and that this saying was in keeping with a Hellenistic interpretation of the Jesus story. I accept the kerygmatic nature of the atonement in the Pauline epistle and in the synoptic gospels, including Mark which gives credence to its early importance in primitive Christianity, at least as it is preserved in the canonical texts. I also see atonement as a concept at work with the Marcionites, whose other ideas clearly were not shared by the early Catholic faith. The Gnostics, of course, would have a very different interpretation of the meaning of the death of Jesus and, it goes without saying that though there are some obvious commonalities, the Pauline, synoptic and Johannine treatments of christology are markedly different in many critical areas. I do not accept that any of these beliefs, though dearly beloved by their own communities necessarily speaks to my own relationship with the divine in my context and community. Two thousand years after the fact, whatever that fact was, the Christian community is not always well aware of the politics and friction involved in the creation of the canon. The Jewish Christian beliefs, ones we might consider as surefire contenders in the authenticity contest for understanding the Jewish rabbi, get abandoned in the second and third centuries in favor of far more Hellenistic interpretations. There are winners and losers in this story. I was raised to question the victors' motives and methods.

I maintain that the crucifixion, clearly understood contemporaneously as a shameful death, had to be dealt with if the Christian movement was to survive. They simply could not allow it to stand on its own without weaving meaning into it. I do not, however, believe that the primitive Christians were united on this concept and I do not believe that modern day Christians and/or Friends need to be either. Was he a great teacher, the Messiah, a rebel, a socialist, or the Christ? Given the major differences among even the canonical texts which canonical text should I accept as "most canonical"? By that I mean do we accept the christology as written by the oldest canonical text (Mark) with its deep emphasis on the crucifixion and its adoptionist approach or do we go for the beautifully spiritual Johannine gospel with its emphasis on Christ as the pre-existent Logos, a christology sharply different from that of Paul's and the synoptic authors' interpretations?

I don't know. It is challenging enough to know my own heart without presuming that I know the motivations and experiences of folks living thousands of years ago in cultures that time and geography render deeply foreign to me. I can't pretend to understand the Scriptures and the motivations of their authors well enough to judge another sojourner's faith. Ultimately, what can I say about the atonement? where lies my redemption if not in an orthodox understanding of scripture? I say that it is between my soul and God and it is between your soul and God. That's the best I can do.

1/26/2009 12:04 PM  
Blogger David Carl said...

I tend to be what we lawyers call "result-oriented" about this. That is, I often find myself in harmony with what atonement proponents advance as the consequences of Jesus' death on the cross: Forgiveness, acceptance that I cannot find grace through my own ego-driven efforts, and a demonstration of self-emptying love for others. I also find the story of death of and resurrection a more-than- merely-factual account of the humnan spiritual journey. On the other hand, I am open to the possibility of mystery that exceeds my frail human understanding. If God did something special for us through the crucifixion, as a matter of historical fact, then I am grateful. If I am required to believe that is so, however, then I am afraid my soul is indeed in peril, since it is a thing that my brain doesn't accept, after having read and meditated widely on the subject with what I humbly believe was an open mind. Nevertheless, I remain open to new Light in this matter.

Peace and grace,

Dave Carl

1/26/2009 2:21 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

Bill, I think it might be important to explain to readers that when you distinguish between "modern" and "post-modern", you are not using the term "modern" in the way that most people are familiar with.

If it were mistakenly thought that, by "modern", you meant the period that followed the Romantic Era — i.e., from around 1900 onward — then what you said would not be correct. The approach to the Atonement that you prefer, the one that does not reduce what happened to some one definite formula, was quite strong all through the twentieth century. In particular, it was publicly championed by the Swedish bishop Gustaf Aulén in his 1931 book Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, and the movement he inspired has remained quite influential in western Christianity clear down to the present, influencing such theologians as William Stringfellow, John Howard Yoder, and Walter Wink, even though many of Aulén's crucial assertions were later revealed as oversimplifications, distortions, and overstatements.

And conversely, the idea that some single explanation of the nature of the Atonement might be the one and only legitimate explanation began with Anselm's Cur Deus Homo ca. 1098 AD, which was a whole quarter of a millennium before Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And it has been prevalent in the Protestant world ever since the middle 1600s, when Calvin and his protégé de Bèze made it popular.

Thus what you say about "modern" and "post-modern" and "pre-modern" makes sense only if we are talking about "theological modernism", which is defined as "a tendency in theology to accommodate traditional religious teaching to contemporary thought and esp. to devalue traditional supernatural elements" (Merriam-Webster) — which was, of course, precisely what Anselm was doing in proposing his satisfaction theory of the Atonement, and what Calvin was doing in proposing his penal substitution theory, etc. Whereas, what Aulén was doing, in disagreeing with Anselm and Calvin, was refusing to buy into the basic theological strategy of modernity!

I like the fact that you posted an essay on five types of thinking about the Atonement on your web site, but it seems to me that Roberts badly misunderstands Anselm. Anselm's satisfaction theory is not really about God needing His honor preserved, even though it uses the concept of feudal honor as its starting point. That is precisely why Anselm's theory "poses problems" when it is misunderstood in such a way. What Anselm's theory is really about is the fact that we fallible humans do not behave in a morally perfect way, as George Fox and the early Friends believed we could and must; Anselm uses the metaphor of feudalism to express this by saying that we have not paid God the tribute of constant righteousness that we owe Him as our Lord. Thus, Christ has magnanimously made up the shortfall — no, not by suffering, as Roberts says — but out of his own superabundance of virtue, which he yielded up on the cross.

Roberts's "peacemaker" theory, his fifth, also seems rather unsatisfactory, at least to me. I like it for its Quakerish flavor; but it strikes me as a rather impoverished simplification of what Aulén called the "Christus Victor" theory. Nayler's "Lamb's War" doctrine was grounded in the whole of the "Christus Victor" theory, and not just in the part that Roberts presents.

1/26/2009 2:31 PM  
Blogger Bill Samuel said...

Marshall, I am trying to use "modern" in the way of the thinking of the trilogy being reviewed. The modern era is generally dated with the Age of Enlightenment. It's hard to pin a date on when that began, but it's certainly significantly earlier than you suggest I might in your comment.

1/26/2009 5:47 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

My goodness. If I'd known this was going to be such an active post, I wouldn't have put it up in a week when I wasn't going to be able to respond promptly. Thank you to everyone for having such an interesting conversation in my absence.

In response to Marshall's first question, "why would people on the right want to raise their children in a "converged" congregation where things are taught that imperil the soul?": I think the first answer is that no one wants to imperil their children's souls. But McLaren's books illustrate nicely how you can raise your children in a completely "guarded education," just to throw in a Quaker term, and they may still start to ask questions and consider other points of view, whether you like it or not. This is one of the main themes of The Last Word and the Word After That. It doesn't work very well to try to hide other interpretations from them. I think we're better off to try to teach them what we believe and then help them to wrestle with their own questions. Dan Poole, teaching pastor that he is, does a pretty good job of this in the book.

Secondly, I think much of the emergent movement is an example of young people wrestling with the traditional theories, some of them accepting the right wing theories of the Atonement and some of them not. This isn't just a liberal Quaker issue, it's much bigger than that.

David and Bill, thanks for the suggestions of other readings on the Atonement. As I think I've said before, I'm not really worried about it right now and I'm not really looking for more to read about the Atonement. It just happened to be the main theme of McLaren's third book, so I gave my reflections, as shallow as they may be. Nonetheless, Gregg, I'd be happy to read any more you have to say on the topic.

Patrick, James, Hystery, and Bill, I agree that there is much to be said for living with the mystery of God and Christianity, and that there is not a monolithic view of the Atonement, even in evangelical churches, even in Quaker churches. This is another main point of McLaren's books: even in supposedly conservative congregations with clear doctrinal statements, you can't stop people from thinking radical thoughts.

And people say Quakers aren't big on theology. Ha! They should read this!

1/26/2009 11:38 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

"And people say Quakers aren't big on theology." Who says that?

Bill, if you're using "modern" as referring to the "modern era" that followed the Middle Ages, then it seems to me that the argument that "the modern approach wants to nail everything down", while the "pre-modern" did not, becomes even more problematic. For it was during the late Middle Ages, i.e. before the modern era, that simplistic nailing-everything-down thinking about the Atonement was actually at its peak. It was Anselm who proposed the first one-explanation-that-covers-everything. Abelard was condemned for heresy because his explanation pulled up nails that Bernard wanted left hammered in. And after Aquinas, there was an orthodox formula spelled out in the Summa that everyone in western Europe was expected (though not required) to be comfortable with.

From Luther on, that kind of everything's-settled position became harder and harder to maintain. Each major Protestant movement had its own interpretation of the Atonement; each one thereby undercut the credibility of the others. Enlightenment philosophers, beginning with Spinoza in the late seventeenth century and accelerating with Astruc, Semler and Eichhorn in the eighteenth, developed that "higher criticism" that eventually undermined all the theories. In the nineteenth century, science became a shelter for agnostics who doubted all the theories and skeptics who scoffed at them. No shelter of that sort had existed in the long period between the fall of classical paganism and the rise of the modern era.

I'm not attacking McLaren by saying this. I just think it doesn't hurt to note that the rejection of hard-and-fast Atonement theories is in fact a "modern" thing, not a pre-modern or post-modern one.

1/27/2009 8:04 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Marshall, while I appreciate the tremendous knowledge you bring to this discussion, I haven't heard you clearly say what you believe about the Atonement. Would you be willing to share your own understanding?

1/27/2009 11:24 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

A fair question, dear Friend.

The original meaning of the English word "Atonement" was "reconciliation", and at the time it entered our English-language Bibles (the sixteenth century, a century before Quakerism), and English Protestant theology, it was used as a translation of Greek and Hebrew words that signified reconciliation between human beings and God. In the generation after it entered the English Bibles, its meaning was hijacked by the Puritans, and hitched to the Calvinist wagon, so that it swiftly came to take its dominant modern meaning as a near-synonym to "appeasement" or "rendering satisfaction". These two modern meanings, "appeasement" and "rendering satisfaction", tie it, respectively, to Calvin's doctrine of Christ as a penal substitute, and Anselm's doctrine of Christ as making up the debt we owe to God and cannot pay ourselves.

However, neither Calvin's doctrine, nor Anselm's doctrine, is truly Biblical. Anselm, in fact, never bases his doctrine on the Bible at any point whatsoever in his Cur Deus Homo, and Calvin's doctrine makes a poor fit with Christ's teachings about a loving Father in Heaven.

Going back to the Bible, then, and reviewing the original texts in their original Hebrew and Greek, it becomes clear that while the apostles really did feel that Christ made a reconciliation between humanity and God, and between all the powers of earth and God, they weren't thinking in Calvinistic terms of sin-as-crime and punishment-as-the-only-way-of-dealing-with-sin. Reading Paul in his letter to the Romans, or reading the letter to the Hebrews, one gets the feeling of people who had experienced something very powerful when the Crucifixion happened, or when they finally connected in their own hearts with the Crucifixion — something that seemed to open floodgates letting God's power pour into the world and transform people — and they struggled to understand and articulate that experience, trying one metaphor after another.

The basic principle of Quakerism, to which I wholly subscribe, is to do one's best not to deny the truths of the Bible or to run beyond those truths into personal imaginings. In this case, it seems to me that the truth being taught is that the Crucifixion opened up that flood of divine power, cleansing hearts, remaking attitudes, restoring people's connection with God. The early Christians firmly believed that without that electrifying moment, nothing that happened to them, and nothing that happened through them to the world, could have been possible. These are the Biblical truths in this particular matter.

All the rest — the many different theories that the early Christians, and the generations that followed, have advanced about the nature of the Atonement — strikes me as being evidence of a struggle to come to grips with what those truths mean, or imply, for the people who came later. Some of what has been said, for example by Athanasius and by Luther, has proved tremendously illuminating and even liberating to many thousands of believers; even though I am not affected quite that way myself, I respect the experience of those who are.

In our own struggle to come to grips with the Atonement, and to benefit from what it released into the world, I think we can, and should, allow ourselves a little latitude: latitude to entertain different personal views, and even argue constructively amongst ourselves, as we work toward a fuller understanding. But I don't think we will get the full benefit unless we learn to hear the different teachings as they were originally meant to be heard. And this is why, for example, I have stressed the point that the liberals aren't yet listening to what the orthodox and evangelicals are trying to tell them. The listening has to come before the benefit; that's how it works.

I should add that I have been working since last April on a very long essay (better than 20,000 words when you count the footnotes) on this very subject, which will be a major part of a book I aim to finish writing this year. What you've seen, in my comments here, are just little samples of what I say in that essay.

1/28/2009 11:50 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Ah, Marshall, I should have known when you got into disagreeing with Roberts' interpretation of Anselm that there was a book or something behind this much depth of knowledge. Thanks for sharing your own thoughts as well.

1/29/2009 11:34 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

Thank you for that kind response, Robin.

I truly don't expect others to agree with my views just because I've done research. This is one field where research isn't everything — not by a long shot.

1/30/2009 11:28 AM  

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