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.

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