Friday, December 30, 2005

Atonement Follies

Adrian Warnock runs a blog. I was doing Google Blog searches and came upon this post of his regarding the atonement. In the last paragraph he writes:

The bible is very very clear, we are saved by Christ from the wrath of God. If you cannot accept that, I am not convinced that you are definitely saved and I would be concerned that you might fall short of the test that we will all undergo on that final day. This issue really is that important.
He's referencing Romans 5:9. One problem with what he says there. In the greek it does not say "wrath of God", it only says wrath. It should be translated as "we are saved by Christ from the wrath". The wrath here is human wrath, not any kind of violent wrath originating from God.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Atonement Theory

There seems to be some controversy in emerging church circles regarding atonement theory. The most popular of these theories is the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. Some people in the emergent movement are finally starting to sense that there might be problems with the very theoretical penal substitutionary atonement theory. When discussing atonement I think we must begin with trying to figure out what the atonement liturgy in ancient Israel represented or was thought to symbolize. I think two writers can help us go back and try to figure out what the idea of atonement is all about. They are Rene Girard and Margaret Barker. Rene Girard should be familiar to some in the emergent movement, while Margaret Barker I think is still pretty obscure. Rene Girard is responsible for bringing us mimetic theory/scapegoat theory. Margaret Barker specializes in the study of the symbolism, liturgy, history, etc of the first temple in Jerusalem and how all that relates to the origins of Christianity. James Alison has attempted a synthesis of the work of Girard and Barker in this very good essay/speech on the Atonement.

There’s an enormous amount of material to go through here. In a very rough and incomplete outline I’ll try to list some of the things I think are important.

  1. Rene Girard has shown that collective community violence/murder is at the foundation of all culture and religion.

  2. Wrath is human wrath. Wrath exists. Human wrath must be controlled or it will destroy everything. A scapegoat must be found in the human wrath war of all against all. A victim which all members of the community can agree. Someone on whom they can place all their sin/violence/evil, allowing them to avert their own wrath and cycle of violence, so as not to destroy themselves. See my posts regarding Achan and the control of wrath. Joshua 7 is an example of an atonement ritual.

  3. The Jubilee and the Day of Atonement are very closely related. You can’t talk atonement without placing it in the context of the Jubilee. Specifically the tenth Jubilee.

  4. The temple represented/was creation.

  5. Isaiah servant songs are crucially important to understand the ancient atonement rite. The High Priest was the servant of the Lord. The High Priest represented/was the Lord. Early on, I believe the King and High Priest were one. Girard has discovered that in primitive societies kingship originated from human sacrifice. Kings were the original human sacrifice to keep the community/primitive society from destroying itself, thus Jesus is referred to as a King.

  6. Atonement is supposed to hold the community together and renew creation. Renew the eternal covenant.

  7. Blood was Life. The high priest emerging from the temple was carrying the life of the Lord, renewing creation, gathering all sinners back into the fold, etc.

  8. Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana. Pagan atonement ritual.

  9. The goats. Commonly translated, one for Azazel and one for the Lord. Could just as easily be translated as Azazel and as the Lord. The goat as the Lord was a substitute for the High Priest who was/represented the Lord. The other goat was Azazel.

  10. The High Priest took the blood of the sacrificed goat into the temple and in a movement described as “like a whip” sprinkled the blood in places throughout the temple/creation. The leftover blood was poured out under the great courtyard altar. Reference Jesus cleansing the temple with a whip and the souls of the martyrs under the altar, in John’s Book of Revelation vision, their blood poured out as part of the Great Atonement.

  11. Jesus’ miracles were, I think, about the absorbing of sin. The people were placing their sins and illnesses upon him.

  12. He took his own blood into the holy of holies, not the blood of goats or by extension other people. See the Achan and the Apollonius of Tyana stories.

  13. Think of the victim in the Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Barker has a slightly different translation, “He is the bond of our wholeness, and by his uniting us we are healed.”

  14. See John 10. Notes from a Gil Bailie lecture, found at the Girardian Lectionary:
Internally, the background within John's gospel comes from John 5:2, the reference to the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Jesus met the paralytic, whom he cured on the sabbath, at the pool near the Sheep Gate, which is the gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which the sheep were led and then held in a holding area on their way to the altar of sacrifice. It was the entry point for the victims of the sacrificial regime.
So how should we understand the mention of sheep in John's gospel? Often, it is as a reference to some form of bleating conformity. We think, "Oh, they're all sheep." No! The most important reference to sheep in the New Testament is sacrificial. Sheep are the sacrificial animals par excellence. (As a matter of fact, sacrifice gave rise to animal husbandry, in the first place. Animals were originally kept for sacrifice. So keeping livestock, in its origins, has never simply been a purely agricultural phenomenon.)
John's gospel introduces us to Jesus through the words of John the Baptist (John 1:29): "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"
Jesus begins his discourse: (John 10:1) "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit." It is not said, but doesn't the background imply that shepherd (as opposed to the others who Jesus specifies) enters the sheepgate as one of the sacrificial animals?
Jesus continues: (John 10:2-3) "The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out." The shepherd enters into the gate in the same way that the sheep do. The sheep recognize his voice. They recognize the shepherd as one of them.
Who are the thieves and bandits who come in a different way?
If we are correct in suggesting that the ones who come in by the gate are victims, then the thieves and bandits are those who manipulate the system by redirecting its sacrificiality towards more expendable victims.
The word "bandit" has the connotations (in the Greek) of being a revolutionary, or insurrectionist. A revolutionary is one who turns the direction of the sacrificial system. He doesn't transform it; he simply redirects it. The system revolves, but doesn't transform.
Jesus also mentions another who comes in, in addition to the thieves and bandits, who is not the shepherd: the hired man. He says, (John 10:12-13) "The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away--and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep." So we might say that the hired hand is some functionary who tries his best to rehabilitate a certain victim, but only at the expense of another victim on whom he redirects the system. He's just a hired man; he's not really leading people out.
By contrast, Jesus says, (John 10:14-15) "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep." In other words, the difference between the sheep, i.e., the victim, and the shepherd disappear. Here is a shepherd who is himself a victim, and he will lead the sheep out of the sheepfold.

Enormous amount of material to go through regarding this subject. The above only begins to scrape the surface. Entire books could and have been written. I recommend some beginning materials here.

Emerging Church

I really don't know what to make of this so-called emerging church thing. They seem to be groups of people who think they're might be something wrong with traditional conservative evangelicalism, but can't really figure out exactly what it is. Brian McLaren seems to be some sort of emerging church luminary, but it's going to be hard to take anything he says seriously if he hasn't read or studied anything by Rene Girard. I mean come on, I think this is a serious lapse. I don't mean this in an angry way, I just can't believe it. It's difficult work, hard to get started, but if you want a theological basis for your emerging church movement, which really exposes the theological mistakes of conservative evangelicalism, I think you need to study your Girard. Penal substitutionary atonement is radically wrong and it must be attacked and exposed for what it is. Girard can definitely help us to do this. Besides being difficult to catch on to, I can't figure out why Girard isn't more influential in the emergent church movement.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Many Problems of Popular Christianity

There are many problems with popular Christianity. Popular Christianity being the form of "Christianity" that helped to put the Republican party into power. The most serious problem is the understanding or misunderstanding of atonement theology. Here is the very conservative theologian Greg Bahnsen discussing his version of atonement theology.

How can a guilty sinner avert the just condemnation and wrath of God? How can he be set free from the penalty he deserves?
I just don't get this obsession with the idea that the wrath comes from God. I believe in wrath. Wrath exists. Wrath is human wrath.

There's this quite bizarre notion, credited to Anselm, that humanity has sinned and violated God's seemingly arbitrary laws and thus offended God greatly. This sin is somehow of infinite nature, so it requires an infinite penalty. Humanity is not infinite, thus can't pay the penalty to God. So God, deciding that he does in fact need this infinite penalty paid to Him, needs someone of an infinite nature to pay the penalty. According to this view of atonement God concocts a plan by which He sends his son Jesus to die on the cross and pay the penalty for us, dies in our place. Thus all we have to do is "believe" in Jesus and our sins will be forgiven before God. The problems with this theory are enormous. Let me begin a list.

  1. This theory has absolutely no understanding of what the atonement liturgy in ancient Israel represented or was about.
  2. Why are we assuming that God likes to see people die?
  3. Why does the "God" of this theory need human sacrifice?
  4. Why does God need to punish us when we're quite good at punishing ourselves?
  5. Why are so many Biblical passages so blatantly misinterpreted to support this theory?
Atonement was the renewal of the eternal covenant. The covenant was what held creation and the human community together. Atonement was the ingathering of peoples. In the ancient rite of atonement there was no wrathful deity. It was the deity coming forth from the holy of holies carrying His blood to restore all people into community.

Throughout the Bible human wrath is on the verge of breaking out. The war of all against all. An example is Phineas killing the apostate Israelite and his Midianite wife in Numbers 25:10-13. He was given the covenant of peace. He committed an act of atonement. A plague of violence was about to break out, but instead of using his own blood to achieve atonement he used someone else's, but nevertheless he put the sins of the community onto his two victims.

I wish I had more time to fully expound on what atonement means, hopefully I'm giving you little glimpses of what the Anselmian idea of atonement is covering up.

Inerrancy / Literalism

I just don't get the necessity of inerrancy. I just don't think it is an appropriate category. The idea behind literalism I do get though. Literalism is just a way to absolutize current thoughts about the text. Literalism is just a defensive posture. Not defending the Bible, but defending current interpretations of the Bible. In essence the Bible says what the literalist wants it to say. The ultimate standard of truth for the literalist, is the literalist's current opinions. Words, meanings and ideas change, the literalist absolutizes his own group's current interpretations of words and meaning. The Bible is just something on which the literalist can project himself. Feel free to discuss...

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Gospel of Jesus Christ - Beginning to Figure Out What It's All About

According to the Qumran scrolls the high priest Melchizedek would appear at the beginning of the tenth Jubilee and this would end with the final day of Atonement. Margaret Barker has done some incredible research regarding the origins and symbolism of Christianity. She has found striking similarities between Christianity and the symbolism and theology of the first temple in Jerusalem. The Qumran Melchizedek text shows that Melchizedek was the anointed prince of Daniel 9 and the anointed one of Isaiah 61. To understand Christianity we must understand what the Jubilee was and the what the great day of atonement meant and symbolized. Who was this Melchizedek character? He’s mentioned only briefly in the Bible, but the Book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Barker says the “Qumran text speaks of the Day of Atonement at the end of the tenth jubilee (490 years) and Daniel 9 of the Day of Atonement at the end of seventy weeks of years (also 490 years).” In the Qumran text Melchizedek is the one who brings atonement. In Daniel, Barker says, the one who brings atonement is unnamed anointed Prince.

Melchizedek was the great high priest. Barker says that according to the Qumran Melchizedek text that Melchizedek “was the figure who was expected to appear in the first week of the tenth Jubilee and teach about the end of the age, to rescue the children of light from the power of Satan, to set people free from the debt of iniquity, to establish the Kingdom of God and to perform the great atonement sacrifice of the last days”. The thing is Jesus appeared at the exact time that Melchizedek was expected to appear. Ms. Barker calculates that Jesus was baptized in the first week of the tenth Jubilee and she says, “he claimed to have fulfilled the Jubilee prophecy in Isaiah 61 which was associated with Melchizedek. The tenth and final Jubilee was the background of the Gospels. The Jubilee is the “Good News”.

We’re starting at the beginning of Christianity and at all beginnings we need to define our terms. What I’ve written above really is not very clear. It was hard to figure out where to start. I need to answer a lot of questions.

  • What is enacted on the day of atonement? What does it symbolize?

  • What is the role of the high priest?

  • What does the temple symbolize?

  • The goats?

  • The blood?

  • What is the Jubilee?

  • This Melchizedek character what’s up with him? Why is Psalm 110, the Melchizedek Psalm, the most frequently used text in the New Testament?

  • Many more questions…

Reading List:
  1. Violence Unveiled – Gil Bailie - Introduction to Girardian mimetic theory / scapegoat theory. Will help us to understand what is occurring on the Day of Atonement.

  2. The Scapegoat – Rene Girard

  3. Temple Theology – Margaret Barker – An introduction to her fascinating research

  4. The Great High Priest – Margaret Barker

  5. Anything else by Margaret Barker

  6. Anything else by Rene Girard or on mimetic theory.

Margaret Barker on the Day of Atonement.
Interview with Rene Girard
Paul Nuechterlein’s Girardian Core Convictions – point by point theological application of Girardian theory
Excerpts from Margaret Barker’s introduction to Temple Theology
Speech given by Margaret Barker at, of all places, BYU - TranscriptMP3
James Alison beginning to mix Girardian theory with the research of Margaret Barker