Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thinking About Atonement w/Andrew Sung Park (pt.3)

[Picking up an older series about Park's "Triune Atonement" book that I never finished blogging about here.  Click here for the first one introducing the basics of the book, and here for the second post I wrote up back in May about Park's analysis of four older atonement theories.  Here I'll blog about the last three atonement theories]

5) Penal Substitution: This is probably the most common version of atonement theory post-Reformation, popular especially today amongst evangelicals.  Unlike Anslem, John Calvin sees Jesus not just as a satisfaction but as a substitute for the punishment humans deserved for their sins.  Until Jesus' death, we sinners were God's enemies, deserving only of death.  But out of love, God sent his son to die in our place to appease his need for justice.

  • Strengths: Possibly supported by several biblical passages; emphasizes the importance of resurrection.
  • Weaknesses: Promotes violence in the name of salvation - even potentially justifying child abuse and/or spousal abuse through glorifying redemptive suffering; unclear why God needs to punish in order to forgive (even Jesus taught before his death of a forgiving God); punishing an innocent person in place of the guilty is immoral. 
6) The Last Scapegoat Theory: This one's a bit more complicated.  Arising out of the work of 20th century Christian anthropologist Rene Girard, here we need to understand 'mimesis' - basically the idea that humans tend to mimic each other's behavior. Mimesis tends to spiral towards competitive relationships in society, then to severe social tension, conflict, & even violence.  In order to avoid total social destruction, tension is released by turning to a single person and blaming them for all the uproar - a 'scapegoat.'  This person is already socially a marginalized member of the community.  The community kills the person and social peace & order are largely reinstated as it (re)generates a wide sense of social camaraderie.  This is the 'scapegoating mechanism' - sacrificial rituals to alleviate the social and cultural pressures of violence due to mimetic conflict.  Jesus' death is meant to end this whole process of scapegoating that has occured throughout history - he's the 'last scapegoat' to end all sacrifices because of his absolute innocence.  The superior power of his resurrection overcomes the weaker power of scapegoating, unmasking the powers that reinforce the scapegoat mechanism (imperialism, 'satan', etc.) for their evil and injustice.  This is a nonviolent atonement theory.

  • Strengths: Recognizes that it was human violence, not God that is responsible for Jesus' death; biblical support; highlights importance of the resurrection.
  • Weaknesses: His mimetic theory that human nature, culture, and civilization are built on conflict, rivalry, and violence needs more support; despite Christ being the last scapegoat in this theory, the cycle of mimetic violence and injustice continues in history - in fact, violence has only escalated in history; does not emphasize the importance of transforming human hearts - one could say that our 'mimetic nature' needs to be transformed, not just our practice of violence.
7) The Nonviolent Narrative Christus Victor Theory: This newer and thoroughly nonviolent atonement theory arises from the work of Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver. Weaver defines violence as not just physical harm of another, but also damaging a person's dignity or self-esteem. Atonement must be nonviolent, in harmony with the biblical narrative of the nonviolent Jesus. Jesus' mission was not to die, but to proclaim the nonviolent Reign of God and to show that God deals with evil nonviolently.  But Jesus' mission was threatening to the powers of this world, so they crucified him.  The powers of this world are what is meant by the biblical symbol of the "devil" - any system or individual that opposes the Reign of God.  We all play a role in Jesus' death whenever we sinfully side with the powers (e.g. the 'devil'), but God forgives us with a costly grace when we join in faith in following Jesus - entering and embodying the Christ narrative.  Jesus' death does not satisfy God's need for justice, but reveals the evil of the powers that be to convict the oppressors.  His resurrection defeats the powers for us, but until the end of history, evil is present but nevertheless limited.

Strengths: Rightly emphasizes Jesus' nonviolent resistance against injustice and oppression as a part of atonement; includes both oppressed and oppressors in salvation equation; integrates theology and ethics - to tell this story of Jesus is to follow him; emphasizes not Jesus death, but his life and resurrection as well.

Weaknesses: Does not explain why we must live with evil until the eschaton if in fact Jesus already defeated it in his resurrection; does not fully recognize the power of the risen Christ and Paraclete/Holy Spirit for ongoing atonement work; wrongly equates salvation with liberation when salvation is for the oppressors and liberation is for the oppressed.

The final blog posts on this great book will outline Park's own proposal for atonement theology.

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