Monthly Archives: September 2015

Christian Salvation, Part Two: Old Testament Mercy

Ted Grimsrud—September 20, 2015

In the first post of this four-part series (drawing on presentations to a Sunday school class at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, VA), I offered a summary and critique of the standard atonement theology characteristic of much of western Christianity. This is called the “satisfaction view” of the atonement, and I suggest that some of its problems are related to the way it presents God in relation to salvation as mechanistic, retributive, and punitive. I have written at length elsewhere how this theology actually has the tragic impact of leading Christians to be more supportive of violence (e.g., war, capital punishment, harsh criminal justice practices, corporal punishment of children).

Restorative justice

My thinking about Christian salvation has been helped a great deal by conversations I have had with my friend Howard Zehr about restorative justice. Howard has been a leader in the movement to reshape the way our society deals with the brokenness caused by crime. Howard’s approach is to focus especially on the needs of the human beings involved, especially the victims (who are often ignored—or worse—by the system) as well as the offenders (who rarely are helped to find healing and often after an encounter with the system end up offending again). We wrote an article together, “Rethinking God, Justice, and the Treatment of Offenders,” that attempted the beginning of articulating a theology for restorative justice (I also have been working on a book manuscript, Healing Justice [And Theology]).

Howard introduced me to a book, Justice as Sanctuary, by a friend of his, a Dutch law professor named Herman Bianchi. Bianchi uses a provocative image. He says that theology is a big part of our problem of criminal justice practices that make things worse, in terms of some problematic ways it has influenced the practice of criminal justice in the West. So, he suggests, what we may need is something like homeopathic medicine where we use a does of what makes us sick actually to help us heal ourselves. That is, he says, a different kind of theology might be able to help us overcome the problems of retributive justice.

The book I wrote about this, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, then, is a kind of exercise in homeopathic therapy—focusing on a rereading of the Bible and salvation as a way of moving toward a more peaceable way of dealing with wrongdoing that will help break the spirals of violence so widespread around us.

In this post I will discuss the Old Testament—followed by two more in the weeks to come that will focus first on Jesus’s own teaching and practice in relation to salvation and then on the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection for our salvation theology. Continue reading

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Christian Salvation—Part One: Problems with Atonement Theology

Ted Grimsrud—September 13, 2015

[I am in the midst of a series of presentations to a Sunday School class at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on rethinking our understanding of salvation. I was asked to make a total of four presentations, drawing on my 2013 book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books) and various other writings I have produced on this theme. This written version of my first presentation actually sets the context for the book more than summarizes the book. It is a discussion of how our traditional atonement theology is problematic and why it might be useful to think of an alternative. I have found this a useful challenge to summarize the main ideas of this project.]

These are some questions to get you thinking about this topic of Christian salvation: What were you taught (explicitly and implicitly) about (the means of) salvation when you were growing up? How (if at all) have you revised your thinking on that theme? What role (if any) has the idea of Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice played in your beliefs about salvation? How would you characterize the view of God reflected in your salvation theology? What connection would you make between one’s view of salvation and how life is lived out as a follower of Jesus?

“Atonement”

The word “atonement” was coined in English, perhaps very early in the 16th century, as a way to talk about Christian salvation. It was actually created by simply joining together the phrase at-one-ment. It was meant to be used as a way of talking about how human beings are to be reconciled with God. So, “atonement” does not directly translate any Hebrew, Greek, or Latin word; it is something new. It has been called perhaps the only theological term with an English origin.

We should note, then, that the very word “atonement” was created around 400 years after the influential medieval theologian and church leader Anselm of Canterbury wrote his classic text that defined Christian salvation theology—the most influential work for both Catholics and Protestants. Anselm’s position articulated in Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) established what came to be called the “satisfaction” model as the essential understanding of atonement that shaped western Christianity (it is essential to realize that Anselm’s work came about a century after the formal separation between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy as the two main branches of Christianity—and the view of salvation developed in eastern Christianity was quite different than the western theology; so what follows is a critique only of the western, Anselmian theology). Continue reading

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