[This is the third in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013).]
The story told in the gospels places itself in the heart of the traditions of Israel. Jesus presents himself in this story as embodying the promises of Yahweh to his forebears. For Jesus the Old Testament’s salvation story remains fully valid. He does not tell a different story, but proclaims the truth of the old story.
Jesus and Old Testament salvation theology
In the stories of Jesus’s birth, we learn that indeed something new is at hand, a “new thing” in full harmony with the Old Testament portrayal of salvation. There is no hint that something has to happen to God to make restoration possible. God initiates the reconciliation. God unilaterally declares that salvation has come and is especially available to vulnerable and marginalized people.
The birth of Jesus is not linked with the logic of retribution. The birth stories’ announcement of salvation’s presence contains no sense of a new approach to satisfy God’s aggrieved holiness or violated honor or to balance the scales of justice with ultimate innocent sacrifice. The stories point only to God’s initiating mercy and forgiveness.
As Jesus begins his public ministry, he expresses his own sense of continuity with the Old Testament salvation story. In his resistance to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Jesus quotes Israel’s scriptures. In his opening message to his home synagogue in Nazareth, he links himself with Israel’s hopes and Yahweh’s promises from the book of Isaiah. Throughout his teaching as presented in the gospels, Jesus quotes and alludes to and paraphrases the Old Testament. He never hints that he might understand his teaching as anything but in full continuity with Israel’s scriptures.
Jesus drew on Torah to transform how people viewed God’s participation among the people. People in power used debt to enhance their power and wealth at the expense of the less powerful. Jesus saw debt differently. Drawing on Torah, Jesus’s believed debt provided an opportunity for forgiveness. God does not demand repayment for every ounce of indebtedness. Rather, God offers abundant mercy. The debts would be forgiven without any kind of payment. Jesus’s God was not a God who maintained debt records for the purpose of foreclosing on the poor, but a God who canceled debt and restored life. Continue reading
[This is the second in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013).]
I read the Old Testament as a Christian, through the lens of Jesus. Reading the Old Testament in this way simply means allowing Jesus’s values to guide how I sort through the various witnesses. What follows are some ideas about how the Old Testament presents salvation in ways that point ahead to the life and teaching of Jesus.
Salvation as wholeness
Salvation has to do with wholeness. To gain salvation leads to harmony with God, other human beings, and with the rest of creation. We need salvation when we live with disharmony, when we experience brokenness instead of wholeness. The Bible presents salvation on three levels: (1) salvation as liberation from the Powers of brokenness, (2) salvation as restoration of harmony with God, and (3) salvation as restoration of harmonious human relationships. The Old Testament story places priority on salvation in the first sense (liberation). The other two follow from and depend upon the first. Because God acts to deliver, people are then freed to respond to God and restore harmony in their relationships with God and to live at harmony with one another.
In presenting salvation the way it does, via concrete events communicated in stories, the Old Testament locates this salvation in history and not in a cosmic, transcendent context. Salvation in the Old Testament is not about some transaction in the heart of God or some sort of weighing of the cosmic scale of justice. Rather, salvation has to do with flesh and blood actions.
We see in the Old Testament salvation story two distinct themes. First, God calls Abraham and Sarah and promises salvation: a gift of newness in the context of barrenness. God plans to use the community of faith to bring newness to all the families of the earth. This call begins a long process where God’s persevering love bring salvation. Second, God intervenes in the exodus to bring salvation to God’s people. God is a God who liberates the oppressed. God’s salvation does not come through human power politics. God’s salvation leads to a rejection of the values of empires such as ancient Egypt.
Behind God’s gifts and God’s demands lay God’s mercy. Salvation comes from God’s infinite store of mercy that leads to God’s persevering and patient love finding expression in Israel’s history. Salvation arises as God’s initiative and God’s unilateral intervention to heal. The salvation story tells us: (1) God, in love, commits to a long healing process with humankind and (2) God’s healing work involves at its core a counter-cultural sensibility that exalts the oppressed and vulnerable and defies power politics. Continue reading
[This is the first in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013).]
In our present time in the United States, being a self-identified Christian makes a person more likely than a non-Christian to support warfare, punitive criminal justice practices including the death penalty, and corporal punishment of children. It seems likely that one reason American Christians are more pro-violence is because of their acceptance of a theology that understands salvation in terms of God’s retributive justice.
The logic of retribution
This salvation theology is based on a certain view of the “atonement”: The atonement is seen to be how Christ accomplished our justification (i.e., being found righteous before God) through his sacrifice on the cross. Implied in this understanding of atonement is that God’s ability to provide salvation is constrained pending the offering of an appropriate sacrifice. It seems inevitable that violence play a role in satisfying the demands of God’s character—and that violence is part of God’s response when the satisfaction is not forthcoming.
As a rule, to act violently toward, especially to kill, other human beings is serious business, undertaken because some other value or commitment overrides our normal tendency not to be violent. Most socially accepted uses of violence (such as war, capital punishment, and corporal punishment) follow a fairly self-conscious logic. At the core of this logic usually rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution; using violence is justified as the appropriate response to wrongdoing. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (usually defined as repayment of wrongdoing with violent punishment, pain for pain).
We may call this the “logic of retribution.” In this logic, people understand God in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. They see God’s law as the unchanging standard by which sin is measured, and believe God responds to violation of God’s law with justifiable violence. Most violence is justified as being in some sense an expression of this deserved punishment. Continue reading