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.
Does the “cross” = “substitutionary atonement”
Tom Warner responded to my very short summary of the very short summary of a pretty long book. He seems to have read “A message to President Obama on salvation.” It’s not clear he read “The Bible’s salvation story.” I am almost certain he didn’t read any of the post chapters from the book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness.
If he had read the longer materials I would hope he might have stated his criticisms a bit differently—especially his statement that “in this presentation there is no cross.” As I mentioned above, I devote a lot of energy to discussing the death of Jesus and its significance. I do affirm the centrality of the cross (if we understand it simply as referring to Jesus’ crucifixion) to the salvation story.
However, I imagine his central problem with my shortest summary would remain should he read the much, much longer book. There indeed is “no substitutionary atonement.” I explain why in the book in the sense that I understand that idea, especially as presented in the penal substitutionary theology that goes back only to the 16th century and John Calvin, to be missing from the biblical presentation of salvation.
Here I will just say that I argue that I have Paul on my side. I focus only on Romans 1–3 in my book, but I am confident that the issues raised in that section are more or less the same ones raised elsewhere in Paul’s writings concerning salvation. Certainly, there is no question that Paul affirms that Jesus’ crucifixion is enormously significant. The issue is how does he understand that significance.
To say Paul emphasizes “Jesus Christ and him crucified” and the “suffering of Christ for our sins” does not have to mean the same thing as “substitutionary atonement.” In fact, I think Paul has something quite different in mind. He does not hint anywhere that I know of that God required this sacrificial death in order to then make salvation possible in a way it wasn’t before. To the contrary, Paul emphasizes throughout that Jesus’ death is itself all, and only, about God’s mercy (not grace alongside retributive justice) and that this is in line with God’s mercy expressed throughout history (see Romans 4). The only way that makes sense to me is to understand the message of Jesus’ cross being a message that God loves us so much that God became incarnate to show that love in real life, that God did not retaliate against the Powers as they murdered his Son, and that because this happened we see the extent of God’s love and mercy as nowhere else as well as the extent of the Powers’ rebellion against God, Powers that we too often tend to trust in.
Tom also asserts that making pacifism the “controlling center of one’s theology” leads to a rejection of God’s retributive justice. I actually would agree with that statement, but I think would likely understand these terms a bit different than Tom would. By “pacifism” I would mean an affirmation that of the biblical message of God’s will for shalom and healing (not a narrow present-day political ideology). It’s “the controlling center” only in the sense that we all read the Bible as having at its center some kind of coherent message. I would say pacifism is simply shorthand for the coherence of the Bible’s message. And this message, I agree, should lead to a rejection of retributive justice—but only because the Bible itself, when read as a coherent story with Jesus at its center, rejects retributive justice.
So, I do think that retributive justice and restorative justice cannot co-exist in our construal of the Bible’s message. They actually are mutually exclusive. God (nor anyone else) cannot both love and punish at the same time.
Resurrection and salvation—and presidents
My good friend Ray Gingerich responded affirmatively to the message-to-Obama post but expressed concern (“huge assumptions that need clearer articulation”) about the final paragraph where I wrote: “The Powers that inhabit idolatrous social structures worked in concert to crush this expression of God’s mercy that, if recognized and embraced, frees people from their idolatries. God responded to the violence of the Powers against Jesus by raising him from the dead, vindicating his life, exposing the Powers, and providing the model for how salvation might be embodied. The path of salvation is clear—turn from the ways of the Beast and simply follow Jesus (the Lamb) wherever he goes (Revelation 13–14).”
Ray asked about both my understanding of “resurrection” and of “salvation.” I think that the only way to offer “clearer articulation” of the “huge assumptions” would be to write a different kind of post. As it was, what I wrote would probably already take longer than the 90 seconds allotted me to say. Since I was already over the limit I can’t imagine clarifying my assumptions more than I did in that thought experiment.
Of course, I can say a bit more here about my assumptions (I could also encourage Ray to read the posted book chapters and, of course, to buy and read the book itself when it comes out!).
Ray gave me two alternatives: resurrection as “metaphysical miracle” or “longterm Jesus-oriented political strategy.” Which is more relevant in a “presidential” context? I tend to think the “metaphysical miracle” issue is irresolvable. We have no reports of the resurrection itself.
I don’t think the issue for the NT writers was about the “metaphysics” of resurrection. They would not have doubted that such a thing could have happened but rather would have cared about what it meant. I think that is where our concern should be too. We have evidence that the resurrection led to a drastic turnaround for Jesus’ followers—but the point of reporting this turnaround was not to defend a belief in miracles so much as to emphasize that the content of Jesus’ life was truthful. The result of affirming the resurrection was courage to embody the way of Jesus in face of possible death. I’m not sure I would use the phrase “longterm Jesus-oriented political strategy” so much as “endorsement of Jesus way of doing life (including politics).” I suppose the point to President Obama would be the same as to any other Christian (or, actually, any other human being). The power of love matters the most. Shape your life by that even in the face of possible suffering and even death. If you are President, you should do this just as much as if you are a less “important” person. It would take a lot more than 90 seconds to converse with the President about what this might mean in his case! I would tend to think, though, that across the board it would point toward being much less concerned with “political calculations” in relation to what actually serves human wellbeing when making policy decisions.
Ray’s two choices concerning salvation were (1) primarily personal or (2) a social-cultural reality. Absolutely do I mean to affirm salvation as a social-cultural reality. It’s personal only in that we do experience social life as individual people in communities. However, one of the reasons it is so important to think of salvation in terms of the biblical story instead of in terms of later theologies is that the Bible clearly emphasizes salvation as a social reality. N.T. Wright is most helpful on this point in several of his recent books, probably most notably, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. In this book he directly takes on later salvation theologies and asserts that because Christian theology has neglected the emphasis of the gospels on the Kingdom of God, it has drastically misunderstood Jesus’ message—with terrible consequences. I would go even further than Wright, but he makes a good start.