Here are some more thoughts as I reflect on the numerous responses to my two recent posts on salvation, “The Bible’s salvation story” and “A message to President Obama about salvation.” The first part of my responding to the responses is here.
Covenant and atonement
Ryan Harker, drawing on N.T. Wright’s early book, The New Testament and the People of God, asks about my sense of how the biblical emphasis on covenant might fit in this discussion. I actually haven’t read this book of Wright’s. It’s the first of what has now been three immense and crucial volumes on New Testament theology, the second being on the historical Jesus and the third on the resurrection. Those latter two were both important resources for my book, and from them I think I have a fairly good sense of what Ryan is asking about.
I really like Wright’s work a great deal, but I am not quite sure I would follow him all the way on his thoughts about the covenant—at least in the way Ryan seems to use them. My difference may be subtle, but still quite important. Indeed, I do think God makes a covenant (or commitment) to Israel that involves demands for Israel’s faithful response to God’s mercy that created them as a people and gave them the vocation to bless all the families of the earth. Torah is the central embodiment of the meaning of this covenant. And there are big problems that arise when the Israelites violate the covenant and turn toward idols and empires and injustice.
However, I don’t think ultimately that the story indicates that God is so offended and alienated by these violations that God then requires a human being (even if God-in-the-flesh) to die as a means of taking upon himself the consequences of the failure. Ryan suggests that God’s “nonviolence” towards God’s people leads God to create this alternative possibility, where the punishment falls on God-in-the-flesh instead of God’s people. This is an attractive idea in some ways, but I think it leaves us with the same problems that other versions of satisfaction atonement do. That is, God remains punitive and we project onto God a retaliatory disposition that must response to sin with punitive consequences.
Certainly, the story does give us instances where God seems to respond the way Ryan suggests, but the overall story makes clear, I believe, that God never requires punishment as a prerequisite for mercy. The mercy is always free and unearned. The role of the covenant (which is closely related to the role of Torah according to Jesus and Paul) is to be an asset in helping people who accept God’s mercy to live faithfully and is best seen in the call to love the neighbor. This was the case throughout the story and does not change with Jesus and the New Testament. As always, the problems arise when people of God get things backwards—be it with sacrifices, Torah, and the land or with the sacraments and doctrines. All these elements of the covenant are meant to serve human beings not human beings serve them.
This is to day, that God’s nonviolence toward God’s people (and the world)—that Ryan, like me, affirms—means that God simply forgives the covenant unfaithfulness and then pulls out all stops to help the people understand and live in response to this forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that God must create some mechanism to punish that would leave God’s people unscathed. It’s mercy all the way down. Continue reading “More on salvation: Responding to responses (Part 2)”