Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Logic of Atonement

I start with two confessions.

First, I am wholly inadequate to write about, or even to contemplate, the atonement, by which I mean the full scope of Christ’s redeeming work for the cosmos: incarnation, life, death, descent into hell, resurrection, ascension, return, and judgment. So, you would be perfectly justified – no pun intended – to stop reading at this point; you would be wise, indeed, to do so if you expect wisdom to follow. And, yet, I am compelled to contemplate and to write – even with fear and trembling – if for no other reasons than to marvel at the atonement and to worship the One who loved us so.

Second, none of the atonement theories on offer make any sense to me – and, please know that I have none better to offer. East and West, Orthodox and Catholic and Protestant, Calvinist and Arminian: none of them makes sense to me. Every atonement theory, or so it seems to me, attempts to apply an external logic that compels God to behave in a certain way. And therein lies the problem.

“That which is not assumed, cannot be healed,” Gregory of Nazianzus tell us by way of logically compelling the incarnation. But why? Could God not heal in another way? Is he helpless before some external logic and forced to act in this particular way of incarnation?

Because God is perfectly just he cannot forgive sin only; he must punish it, Anselm, and hosts of others, tell us by way of logically mandating the crucifixion. Again, why? Surely, the father of the Prodigal Son did not stand on honor or justice but rather delighted in forgiving sin and reconciling his son to himself. Is God more constrained by some external logic than the God-figure in the story told by God the Son?

Every atonement theory I have encountered falls prey to this same problem: each invokes some external logic to compel God’s behavior. In essence, each theory might well start with, “Oh, God had to do this (whatever this is) because …”. And that, I cannot accept. While we might argue over human free will, certainly we must accord God the status of being truly sovereign. God had to do nothing. God chose to do everything. And the difference is vast.

I find nothing logical about atonement history. Read the Old Testament – on its own merit and not through the lens of the New Testament. (I know this is not really feasible, but imagine it nonetheless.) Would you really have predicted the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God the Son? I find no inherent logic in the story that compels God to act as he chose to act in Jesus. Reading the Gospels for the first time I can imagine someone responding, “Who would have guessed?” Oh, there are hints and shadows and prophecies aplenty in the Old Testament, but they are apparent, if at all, only after the facts of the New Testament. Philip started with Jesus and explained the prophets to the Ethiopian and not the other way around. Starting with Jesus you can understand the Old Testament, but, starting with the Old Testament, I don’t think you can predict Jesus and the atonement. My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts, God said, and truly this is so.

So, I find that I cannot say, “God did this because.” Instead, I can and must say, “Because God did this…”. I mean simply this: I cannot logically explain the atonement, but I can enumerate the blessings of the atonement. Unlike Saint Gregory, I cannot say that God had to assume my nature in the incarnation to heal my nature, but I can and do say that because God assumed my nature in the incarnation, my nature may be healed. Unlike Anselm, I cannot say that God had to punish sin to satisfy the just requirements of the law, but I can and do say that because God destroyed sin in the body of Christ crucified, the law lays no legitimate claim on me. There is an enormous difference – and not mere semantics – between “God had to,” and “Because God did.”

Perhaps I’m doing little more than echoing Saint Paul:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written,‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:18-25, NRSV).

While I am convinced that there is no external logic that compelled the atonement, I know also, beyond reason or doubt, that there is an internal logic to the atonement that compels me – an internal logic that transcends reason and makes meaning, that transcends death and makes life.

At some point perhaps we stop trying to understand the cross of Christ by external, human logic and simply start trying to stand under the cross of Christ by the mercy and grace of the God who so loved us in this shocking and unprecedented manner. With the mind in the heart, let us venerate the cross of Christ and worship the One who died there for us.

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