Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Abstract atonement theory vs actual history

The fundamental question sitting in the background throughout Brondos' book is "how does Paul's view of atonement compare to the historical facts of Jesus' life and death?"

Jesus was a person, who lived at a particular time in history and did various things during his life. He gathered disciples, taught, healed, got into conflicts over the Law, the Temple and money. He got plotted against and killed by the authorities. Then God raised him from the dead. That's the story recorded in the gospels. That's the story his followers passed on to each other, its a story of Jesus' life and death and resurrection that purports to a historical account of something that really happened.

Now, if we heard this story as told to us by an early follower of Jesus, or read the gospels that recorded this story, the very first thing we would not say upon hearing the facts of the story is "so Satan's power over humanity is now broken" or "So thorough becoming human Jesus united humanity with God" or "so in dying Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world?". None of these ideas flow naturally out of the story. If you'd just heard the story of Jesus' life you wouldn't, from that story, deduce these ideas.

A view that was quite popular among scholars about a hundred years ago was the viewpoint that most of Jesus' immediate followers simply repeated the bare facts about his life, teachings, death and resurrection. It was believed they taught the historical story about Jesus, and then Paul came along and he wasn't interested in the historical Jesus as a real-person at all. To Paul (according to these scholars) Jesus was the Cosmic Redeemer, and Paul invented an abstract system of atonement in which Jesus' death is an event of cosmic atonement which is dissimilar from any other human deaths in history and which changes the very nature of reality itself. This was thought to have made Pauline Christianity far more attractive to the gentiles who were into religions that said this sort of thing. So it was thought Paul had invented these ideas basically out of whole cloth as he religiousifed
Christianity and brought it to the gentiles. In this way a huge chasm exists between the real Jesus of history which most of Jesus' immediate followers understood Jesus as and the non-historical cosmic Jesus of faith that Paul holds to.

Brondos is concerned about views such as this, where the views ascribed to Paul are either explicitly or implicitly divorced from the facts of Jesus' life and death. ie. where the "theory of atonement" is not obvious upon hearing a simple account of Jesus' ministry, where it involves hidden cosmic transactions that one has to be told about separately. Brondos sees numerous problems with this. He doesn't buy the idea that Paul is disinterested in the historical Jesus, and points to recent scholarship that has found numerous references to the life and teachings of Jesus throughout Paul's letters. He points out that in Romans, Paul is writing to a church he has never been to and yet uses Paul's normal atonement language with the assumption its recipients would understand it fine, indicating that Paul expected people who had heard the simple historical story about the life of Jesus would understand his atonement language and understand him to be saying essentially the same thing as what they already believed.

Brondos argues that a hypothesis that sees Paul's language situated in essentially the same narrative as the gospels actually does make sense of what Paul says. If one takes the view that Paul sees the atonement not as a single event of cosmic redemption accomplished once for all in a single act, but as an ongoing story, then one finds that this coheres very well with things Paul says. In a lengthy analysis of Paul's atonement language, Brondos concludes that Paul's story is the same story as the four gospels. Paul is not meaning to affirm a mysterious cosmic atoning event of a non-historical Christ, but rather to affirm the gospel stories of a historical Jesus whose life, death and resurrection form a unique part in the continuing global story of God's redemption.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

The same cup

One of the arguments made in Pierced for our transgressions that caused me to roll my eyes in despair a bit more than usual was the claim the use of the word "cup" in the gospels in reference to Jesus' death proves Penal Substitution. Their alleged logic behind this is that the Old Testament uses the word cup in the content of God punishing people and being wrathful. They quote a few passages and apparently this therefore proves by the use of the same word in the gospels that God is being depicted as wrathful toward Jesus. (God is actually never described in the Bible as wrathful toward Jesus, hence why the authors of PFOT need to go to such extreme lengths to find proof for their idea) Thus, Jesus' bears the cup of God's wrath poured out on him as a substitute for sinful humanity etc. Anyway, at the time of reading I just dismissed it as yet another one of their E-grade arguments and mentally bucketed it with Goligher's stellar argument that mention of the herb hyssop proves penal substitution.

But in Brondos' Paul on the Cross he has an extended discussion of how in the bible believers are said to suffer the same sufferings that Christ himself suffered, dying "with" Christ etc. His aim is thus to demonstrate that Christ's sufferings weren't thought of as unique among humanity's but rather that Christ suffered in the course of trying to achieve certain things and subsequently his followers suffered for those same goals. Among other passages, he mentions this:
But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; (Mk 10:38-39)

That cracked me up. If you use the PFOT logic of "cup" meaning PS, then this says the disciples are also penal substitutes for the sins of humanity! They drink from the same "cup" of God's wrath as Jesus in their death, and are "baptized" like Jesus in God's wrath. ~snigger~

I was impressed though at Brondos' demonstration of just how strong the theme of us dying like Christ for the same things as Christ is in the New Testament. Not only the (in)famous passage "in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Col 1:24) but heaps of others as well speak of believers suffering like Christ for the same causes as Christ in order to attempt to achieve and further the goals Christ was trying to achieve.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The methodology of exegeting atonement doctrine

I have found that when it comes to atonement, a lot of people have been taught ideas about how it works. If anything causes them to doubt what they have been told, they then go to the bible and say "Is there biblical support for what I have been taught?"

That question is a trick question. Because looking through the bible, if you look long enough, you will find passages that agree close-enough to whatever you have been taught. It is simply a matter of statistics. If you check enough passages they will eventually find some that can be interpreted in agreement with you theory. People are especially psychologically gifted at ignoring passages that disagree with their ideas and focus only one ones that agree. I find that once people have found 'proof' in the bible of the theology they have been taught they will hold it up to doubters and say "look, can't you see? It's so obvious!" It's always obvious, once you've done a careful selection of precisely the verses that most agree with your view, interpreted them in the way that seems best to you, and shunted all the evidence to one side.

I think a major turning point in my own psychology when I came to study the theories of atonement was when I put them all mentally on a level playing field. Instead of saying to myself "can I prove that this particular one is biblical?", I instead said "Well person A thinks that one is biblical and can 'prove' it with biblical verses, and person B thinks that different one is biblical and can 'prove' it with different verses, and person C thinks a different one again is biblical and can prove it with different verses. So how can I know who is right?" I was exposed to different people who were convinced that different and mutually exclusive views of the atonement were biblical and they could all prove it from the bible.

It was that which really made me do a mental gear change. Christians at different times and places in history had been absolutely convinced that certain models of the atonement were the biblical model, but had believed in differing models. Funnily enough, these different Christians seemed always convinced that the model they had been taught was the true biblical. For me I realized that if I really wanted to understand what the Bible writers themselves thought about the atonement I needed a major methodological change. It was clearly not enough to just take what I'd been taught, ask myself if I could find some bible verses that seemed to agree, and then be convinced I held biblical truth. Getting to the truth was clearly much more complicated and messy. Even if multiple atonement models were true or partially true, clearly when different Christians thought different models were the main central model, they could not all be right. In fact, at least all but one of the groups had to be wrong.

Trying to analyze and answer the question of which model of the atonement is really the central biblical one has taken me years. It is a complex matter of studying a whole lot of different subject areas, comparing multiple competing theories against a vast amount of data, and paying as much attention to evidence that disagrees with a viewpoint as is paid to evidence that supports a viewpoint. After years of study during which time I've become fairly knowledgeable on the historical Jesus, Pauline theology, the Early Church Fathers, and the NT writings and systematic theology in general in the process of trying to understand the atonement, and I've come to various conclusions on the subject of atonement doctrine.

But the internet is great for people saying to me in forums "do you believe X?" and I say "Well, actually I don't think that's biblical", and they say "But verses X, Y, & Z say so! Can't you see? It's obvious! You must be blind if you can't see it! You're denying the bible!" The problem I often have is that there's no simple way to explain to people why I hold the views I do. There's no way to compress years of study and analysis, of books and debate into a few sentences or paragraphs. The reasons why I think my view is best are horrendously complicated, depending on complex analyzes of all the evidence and cross-comparisons of different theories and ideas which build on other ideas and scholarship that the person I'm talking to often has never has encountered.

I think this makes me truly appreciate works where the author demonstrates they have engaged in this process themselves. Where they are not just saying "can I prove/disprove what I've been taught", but rather have long grappled with all the different atonement ideas and really understand the situation. I think this is what made me so contemptuous of Pierced For Our Transgressions as the authors demonstrated ignorance on all the important issues and had set out to prove what they had been taught in response to some else denying the truth of what they had been taught. (Similarly for Goligher's The Jesus Gospel) Whereas Brondos in Paul on the Cross gained my full respect by demonstrating that he understands how complex the situation is, that he is fully conversant with all the theories of atonement and sees how different Christians have been convinced different ones and biblical, and is interested in trying to get beyond this to learn something worthwhile about what the NT writers thought however complex this might be to accomplish, and he has good knowledge of the relevant scholarship.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hebrews' allegory of Christ as Priest

The writer of Hebrews presents an allegory that sees Christ achieving what the sacrificial system would have ideally liked to do but couldn't. The new covenant, as a result of Christ, has not only accomplished everything the old covenant did, but surpassed it in every way. I think such an allegory is not really the best place to be looking to learn how the new covenant actually works. But reservations aside, since I have been asked what I think the writer of Hebrews thinks about the atonement...

The first atonement motif in Hebrews is in chapter 2 and talks about him defeating the devil and freeing us from the fear of death, though this motif does not seem to reoccur. So I'm going to put it to one side.

The most common atonement motif is of Christ as an intercessor who submits prayers and supplications to God like an old testament priest. It is in this context that it is said Christ as priest submits to God "gifts and sacrifices" (5:1, 8:3, 9:9) along with his supplications. The idea of sacrifices as gifts to God in order to please him and thus have him view the petitions and prayers favorably was extremely common in the ancient world. The pleasant smell of incense and the giving of gifts other than animals were understood to function in much the same way, thus aiding the petitions of the worshipers.

In this sense in trying to "work out" the allegory, we could say that the writer sees Christ's life of obedience to God and his faithfulness to death doing God's will forms a pleasing gift to God, a sacrificial offering of himself and his life to the will of God ("I have come to do your will" 10:7-9), thus pleasing God and strengthening his petitions.

A second and different function of sacrifices is discussed later in Hebrews - that of purification. In the ancient world the life-force of of pure animals was considered to be able to purify that which it touched by virtue of its own purity. Thus comments are made about how things are washed clean and purified through blood, as if blood was a detergent. The Mosaic law contains long descriptions of how and where to spread the blood to achieve purification. Furthermore the eating of the holy meat of the sacrifice was also believed to bring purification.

Christ gets paralleled to this notion of sacrificial purification. He has achieved some sort of purification that is better and bigger than what the sacrifices could achieve. But how it works is somehow different - we neither are literally washed in Christ's blood nor eat his flesh (well there's the Eucharist, but it's not mentioned). The mechanics of how he achieved this purification are not specified unambiguously or clearly. It is therefore possible to link any atonement mechanism into this.

The mention of a defeat of Satan right near the start of Hebrews would suggest that Christus Victor or Ransom from Satan might provide the correct mechanism for understanding the author's thought here. On the other hand, what is occurring here is sacrificial supersession - ie the sacrificial system is being superseded and replaced by something else. Since cultural studies have indicated that sacrificial systems seem to be always superseded in cultures by morality and ethics this would seem to suggest an Ethical or Moralistic mechanism of atonement is most likely in mind. Throughout the rest of the new testament there is clear evidence of moral living as superseding sacrifices. The most famous being of course Rom 12:1 "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship", but there are heaps of others.

It would be passing strange if the author of Hebrews saw CV or Ransom as providing the mechanism of supersession when the rest of the NT Christians thought moral transformation to living a moral life in obedience to the teachings of Christ and the imitation of his life was what brought about purification and hence superceded the sacrificial system. These ideas seem to make sense of Hebrews when applied to it. The author of Hebrews also seems to have a tendency to draw moral conclusions from sacrificial sentences, implying the same idea of morality as achieving purification and thus having done away with the need for sacrifices.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Without the shedding of blood

I am often surprised when people fail to distinguish properly between descriptive and normative statements, or between contingency and necessity. For those unfamiliar with philosophical terminology:
  • Descriptive statement - a statement that simply describes how things are. It doesn't make any value judgments about whether things ought to be that way, it just observes the facts.
  • Normative statement - a statement about how things ought to be. Rather than describing the facts of any given instance, it makes claims about what is ideal, correct, normal, or best.
  • Contingent - something is contingently true if it happens to be true but didn't have to be true. ie if things could have happened differently, if something could have been done another way, then the fact that things happened in the way they did is called contingent.
  • Necessity - this is where something that is true could never have been different.
The verse I observe people regularly making mistakes about is:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22)
Many people read or quote this verse and assume that it is speaking of something normative or necessary. The assumed idea is that either "without the shedding of blood there can't be forgiveness of sins", or that the law is basically correct in its ideas about purification through blood. They implicitly assume the phrase is not a descriptive one describing a contingent truth.

Yet the phrase seems to me to be obviously descriptive. The writer is observing that "under the law" things are purified with blood and sins aren't forgiven apart from blood sacrifice. In this sentence he makes no value judgment about this fact, he simply makes an observational statement. Elsewhere he does make value judgments and those value judgments are negative, not positive! (Heb 10:4, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.") Far from describing a necessary truth or a normative method of sin-removal in Heb 9:22, the writer is making a descriptive comment about how the law does things that elsewhere he makes clear he disapproves of. In his view, the law's method is neither the only method nor the best method - neither necessary nor normative.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Brondos on atonement

"Generally, when it is said that someone has died or given up one's life "for" others, the meaning is that the person died as a consequence of the activity that that person was carrying out on behalf of others or in order to obtain some benefit for others. In this case, the idea would be that Jesus died as a consequence of his activity on behalf of others, in particular those who would come to be incorporated into the church after his death ("us"), or that his death would benefit them in some way. Both of these ideas can be brought together in considering Jesus' death: he dedicated his life to the kingdom of God and to laying the foundation for a new covenant to come about, and he refused to put an end to that activity when threatened with death, thus suffering the consequences of his activity for others; and by giving up his life in faithfulness to that mission, he obtained what he had sought for others when God raised him from the dead. Thanks to what he did in life and in death, as well as to God's response in raising him from the death, there is now a new covenant in which people may live and in which they may find assurance of salvation and forgiveness of sins. [...] His activity on behalf of others included both his work on behalf of the kingdom and the new covenant in which many would come to share as a result of his work, as well as the implicit petition made when he gave up his life that what he had lived and died for might become a reality." - Brondos, Paul on the Cross pp 109-110

Brondos' view, in short, is that Jesus' aim in life and death was to found the church, in the sense of creating a new covenant community. He persevered to the point of death in the face of opposition, petitioning God through his faithfulness to aid his cause, and God responded by raising Jesus from the dead.

In Col 1:24 Paul writes "in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." Brondos comments on this:
Jesus suffered "for" others in the same way Paul is said here to have been suffering "for" others: both were afflicted as a result of their efforts to establish and extend the community of believers now known as the church. Christ's sufferings had been "lacking" or insufficient in that the task of establishing the church throughout the world had not been completed when he died. (pg 111)

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Narrative atonement

The idea of a narrative theory of the atonement has been around for a while now. Though all models of the atonement implicitly have some overarching story within which they take place, in most models there is some specific point in history at which the Atoning Event happens that drastically changes the created order and provides the ultimate "solution" to the "plight" of humanity, eg when Christ dies on the cross he "defeats the devil" or "takes upon himself the sins of the world". These models of the atonement could be said to focus in on a single event, a single moment in time, and the rest of the framework of redemption which they provide is based around leading up to that one event and then looking back to it. The framework of redemptive history is secondary to the Event of Atonement.

Narrative models of the atonement, by contrast, reject the idea of there being one past event of atonement, and see the course of redemptive history throughout all of history as being what is of primary importance. Any atoning events (note the plural and the lower case) that take place throughout history are only relevant insofar as they tie into everything else and cumulatively build up the big picture. In these stories of history there is no one place you can point to and say "atonement happened then", but rather lots of things happen which interact in complex ways as part of an ongoing story about the world.

The most common narrative model is Narrative Christus Victor, which looks at the world and sees an ongoing battle between forces of "good" and "evil". This is usually construed as not just being a spiritual battle, but an everyday thing with "evils" being things like poverty, racism, hatred, anger. The agents of "good" are anyone anywhere who promotes love, kindness, and positive transformation within the world. Thus in this model, throughout history God is at work through individuals, through Israel, through the Church to bring positive change to creation. The Devil (be he real or a metaphor) is active in the world to promote hatred, destruction and suffering. This narrative model attempts to tell a story of how throughout history there is an ongoing "battle" between good and evil and situates Christ as part of that story and also us too.

Narrative views have a tendency to be difficult to communicate. Most people are used to models of the atonement that are a logically interconnected series of propositions that describe how the Atoning Event "worked". Such explanations can easily be precise, logical, and clear. In contrast, a story about redemptive history that situates both us and Jesus within a wider story can be a lot harder to tell clearly, especially if the hearers are used to hearing how Atoning Events Work and not used to hearing stories.

I recall when I first started studying the writings of the early Christian Fathers, the question I had in my head was "how did they think Christ's death worked?" At the time I thought this was a pretty open-minded question - I was really interested in getting past all presupposed answers I had been taught by people and seeing what the early church really believed. Looking back on it now, I realize that my question there made quite a few arbitrary assumptions - you could have rephrased my question as "Atonement works by a single Atoning Event which took place at the Death of Jesus at which point a real metaphysical change occurred in the created order solving the problem of humanity, and all this can be expressed in a clear series of logical propositions. What did the early Church believe these logical propositions were?" At the time I was disappointed because I failed to find any definitive answer to this question in the early Fathers...

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The righteousness of God

The phrase dikaiosune theou (the righteousness of God) is quite an important phrase in Paul's letters and always a fun one to argue over the meaning of.

It is my view that what Paul means by the phrase is roughly "what God (as opposed to anyone else) considers righteousness to consist of" or, to say it another way, "godly righteousness" or, to say it another way again, "righteousness according to God". I was pleased to see Brondos in Paul on the Cross concurs with me - thumbs up to him. He takes it to mean:
"the righteous way of life commanded by God and in accordance with his will." (pg 85)
The other two main popular views are of course:
  1. The Reformation view and Catholic view that it refers to "righteousness from God" either imputed or imparted.
  2. The Kasemann-Wright view that it refers to something like "God's transformative power working in the world to put it to rights"
This is one of those cases where the evidence is pretty scanty and it's mostly a case of "any of them could be right, which do I like best?". Which view any given person holds is therefore probably a helpful indicator of the rest of their theology.

NT Wright in his book What Saint Paul Really Said gives a helpful table on the subject on pg 101:

In that table, my view and Brondos' is B2, while the traditional Protestant & Catholic views are B1 and the Kasemann-Wright view is A1&A2.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Brondos on PS and Sacrifices

The part of Brondos' book Paul on the Cross which I have found most convincing and interesting so far is his case that Old Testament sacrifices were not understood to work by Penal Substitution (pp 20-30). Here are some of the arguments he gives against this idea:
  1. In the Mosaic law, transgressions deserving of the death penalty are precisely those that cannot be atoned for by a sacrifice, whereas those that do not deserve the death penalty are the ones that can be. This is inconsistent with the idea that the sacrifice dies a substitutionary death.
  2. Flour can be sacrificed instead of an animal if a person is too poor to afford one. It is hard to think of flour as undergoing substitutionary death.
  3. In the 'peace offering' an animal is sacrificed, but there is no atonement or forgiveness taking place. So if sacrifices work by PS, then what's the point of killing this animal?
  4. The only time sins are said to be transferred to the animal is on the day of atonement, where the goat specifically has two hands placed on it and the sins of the people prayed onto it and then is sent away alive rather than sacrificed.
  5. According to PS, sacrifices should become impure as our sin is transferred to them. But they are described as "most holy" (Lev 6:29) and the priests eat the flesh.
  6. There are plenty of instances of God granting forgiveness without sacrifices, and refusing it where sacrifices were given. Thus a substitutionary death appears neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for atonement and forgiveness. The bible depicts it being up to God alone whether forgiveness is granted, which he decides as he wills based on the condition of the human heart.
  7. It was the Jewish belief that atonement and forgiveness came primarily through repentance and prayer, the sacrifices merely accompanied the prayers like the incense.
While Brondos' treatment of how sacrifices don't work was nice and thorough, I found him both brief and vague when it came to explaining just how sacrifices do work.

Also on the subject of sacrifice, I recently found a lengthy bibliography here of scholarly works on the meaning of sacrifices. Thank you Professor James Watts for making that available.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Brondos' Paul on the Cross

I am reading David A. Brondos' Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle's Story of Redemption at the moment and finding it enjoyable. It's well-written, he's clearly well-read, and his logical arguments are pretty sound (few things causes me more mental anguish than poor logic). It's also all about the topics I enjoy studying - models of atonement, the life of Jesus, Paul's theology - so I'm particularly appreciating that.

I offer for viewer comment a rather controversial passage I've just encountered on page 78 of the book:
Futhermore, in accordance with Jewish belief, Paul consistently teaches that the final judgment will be according to one's works or deeds. [...] Nowhere does Paul affirm that the basis upon which people will be judged is whether they had faith or not. Nor is it Paul's teaching that the final judgment will be made on the basis of works merely because "works are indispensable as the demonstration of the true nature of faith."

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Isn't that Pelagianism?

When I explain to people about what the early church believed in the second to fourth centuries AD, they sometimes make the comment "Isn't that Pelagianism?" I'm never quite sure how to respond to that one. I've come to think the simplest and least misleading answer is "basically yes".

Unfortunately this can inspire people to ask truly nasty follow-up questions like "so why was Pelagianism condemned?"... which doesn't admit of anything approaching a simple answer other than perhaps "you're assuming things happen sensibly for rational reasons". Other than that you have to start tracing the convoluted doctrinal development in the 4th-5th century West that lead to Augustine's radical innovations, and then explain the historical and political circumstances that lead to Augustine's influence in the West such that he managed to get a defender of orthodoxy condemned in order to attempt to answer this question. So perhaps the short answer to that is that Pelagius was condemned because he dared correctly label the most influential person in Western Christendom at the time as an innovating heretic. (This is not of course to claim that Pelagius was totally free from all errors whatsoever.)

I had a read of a couple of the standard reference works over the weekend to see if they had anything positive to add that would help me explain things to people who ask me about Pelagianism. They weren't exactly helpful, both taking the view that Pelagianism was substantially identical to the orthodoxy of this period. The Lutheran writer Jaroslav Pelikan in his The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) comments:
In the orthodoxy of the second to fourth century we encounter "Pelagianism before Pelagius." (285)
"Much of this [Celestius' Pelagian doctrines] could claim support from the tradition as well as from contemporary Eastern theologians." (316)
"An injustice may have been done here [in the condemnation of Pelagianism] as in other dogmatic debates, but it was an injustice that made history." (313)
The Anglican writer JND Kelly in his Early Christian Doctrines explains the development of doctrine over this period, noting a virtually non-existence difference between orthodoxy and Pelagius' views, and analyzing Augustine's deviations. He ends up wryly commenting that this all might warrant the view that "the Eastern attitude generally is to be dismissed as Pelagianism." (373)

Of course, all that doesn't really help me answer people's questions on the subject.

A NPP view on Gal 3:10

Somewhere a while ago I came across the idea (I forget where) that, in Galatians, part of Paul's criticisms are aimed at the Galatians only following some of the customs of the law but not others. These view struck me at the time as having great merit, and as time has passed I've only become more convinced it is correct. Here I'm going to comment on this view as it pertains to the interpretation of Gal 3:10, in which Paul writes:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law."

Firstly, Jews in general weren't of the view that they were failing to obey the law. They thought they were succeeding. They didn't think they came under this curse for failing to observe the entire law, because they did observe it in general. They didn't do it perfectly, but they didn't think perfection was required. Secondly, given Sanders' presentation of Judaism it would make most sense if this curse was understood not as a demand for perfection in following the law but as a command to not neglect parts of the law entirely. ie the point is quantitative not qualitative - "follow all the laws and not just some of them" rather than "follow perfectly those you do follow". In other words, it would seem to be most faithful to the typical Jewish understanding of this curse if Paul's view was "Cursed is everyone who picks and chooses which parts of the law they obey" rather than "Cursed is everyone because no one achieves perfection".

Furthermore, given the way that curses were understood to work in the ancient world, it seems likely that Paul would have understood this curse to work as follows. People who were not part of the covenant were completely free of the curse. People who were part of the covenant came under its (complex) array of blessings and curses, which effectively hung over them in readiness to apply should their conditions of activation be met. In this sense all who followed the law were at all times "under" inactive blessings and curses which would trigger conditionally on behavior. Thus this curse would become active if someone started obeying part of the law (and thus made this curse relevant to them) but not all parts of it (and thus triggered the conditions of the curse).

Of course, whether Paul really believed in the metaphysical reality of curses might be questionable (though the province of Galatia was famous within the Roman empire for their belief in the reality of curses, which explains why curse language occurs in Galatians far more than Paul's other epistles), but it makes little exegetical difference if Paul simply read God's curse as written in the Law as meaning "I, God, do not approve of X" rather than as a real magical curse.

All this seems to demand we read Paul's statement as meaning that if the Galatians Christians start observing some of the rituals of the law then this is bad. God does not approve of only following some of the rituals - hence the curse - a person has to either obey all the laws or none of the laws, picking and choosing is not an option. Is this what Paul is saying in Galatians? Yes. That's what it looks like to me. In Gal 5:3 he says:
Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.

It seems to me then that the Galatian Christians have started obeying some of the laws but not all of laws in a belief that this is what God wants of them. Paul is upset by this on two fronts. One, that their practice of simply following some Jewish customs has no merit to it in and of itself. Two, that their belief that they need to follow the law at all is faulty. We see these precise two points stated in this order by Paul in Gal 3:10-12 (as well as elsewhere in the letter).

Friday, July 06, 2007

One of my pet hates

One of the little niggles I have that bugs me on a regular basis when reading works about the beliefs of the Church Fathers is a tendency of the writer to lay out their own theological paradigm as a series of connected points then examine what the Church Fathers had to say about each of those points rather than attempt to construct the theological paradigm of the Church Fathers themselves. In my view, authors score bonus points for being annoying when they start passing negative value judgments on the failure of the Church Fathers to endorse those points thoroughly.

Any sensible analysis of someone's thought and worldview surely consists of trying to 'get inside' that person's head and find out what they thought. To see their worldview as a whole, explore how all the bits are connected, find out what is important to them and what is not, and how they see different bits working together and being related is of surely the goal. To simply present your own predefined system of beliefs laid out in your logical schema and then ask for each individual point whether or not and to what extent you can find traces of ideas in their thinking that matches your individual point is simply poor methodology.

More and more I'm convinced that when it comes to understanding people's ideas and belief systems, there are three important things. (1) A list of simple propositions involved. (2) The importance they place on different ones of these. (3) How they join these propositions together. Of these three, the third is the most important and most neglected. As a useful analogy, imagine a car was dissembled into its component pieces. There are all sorts of ways those pieces could be reassembled and all sorts of devices a mechanically inclined person could construct from those pieces. To simply take a crude inventory of these pieces (eg "sheets of metal, check") and find that someone else's airplane when dissembled into pieces roughly matched your car-pieces inventory hardly implies any sort of equivalence between cars and planes. Similarly we can imagine two wildly different cars which look nothing alike, are not similar in the materials used, and are not alike under the hood (petrol vs electric say), but which are still be functionally similar in what they do and what they are designed to do. But if you broke them down and took an inventory of parts your list might be very different, which would mean that if you just compared inventories or judged from a photograph you'd totally miss the intended similarity of function.

I notice that a common mistake when people examine other people's views is to use (2) and (3) above from their own paradigm as a baseline of comparison and then start doing a comparison where they compare their own (1) to the other person's (1). Unsurprisingly this virtually always leads to a conclusion that the other person's view is deficient in some way because it is missing things that are necessary in the view of the person doing the assessing.

What all this demonstrates is that it is not the components themselves that is important, but how they interact. It is the functioning of the system as a whole that is important, and it is by examining how the individual components interact with each other to affect the functioning of the wider system that is key to an understanding of the system. I think anyone who's dealt with software programming knows the importance of programming "to the interface not the implementation" - in other words it is functional equivalence that is what's important not the concrete implementation and in my experience this applies to philosophical and theological paradigms every bit as much as it does in software.

Now I think that in general all humans have a tendency to use this faulty approach in comparing other people's views with their own. This is probably because it is an approach that works well enough when two people have very similar worldviews, and because it requires a great deal of effort and intelligence to get inside someone else's mind and explore their worldview... inter-paradigm analysis is a non-trivial exercise. But, even understanding why they do it, it irks me whenever I read what someone has written on theology of the church fathers and see they've laid out their contents matching a modern Systematic Theology and gone through a inventory tick-list to see if the church fathers believed all the right things. This is not a helpful methodology when one is trying to understand the theological paradigm(s) of the church fathers in its own right.

Why PS just doesn't matter

I always find it a worthwhile exercise, when considering any theological or philosophical idea to ask the question of what actual difference it makes to our conscious experience of life. In other words, what is its "cash value" in the real world in terms of actually making any sort of difference at all? When I examine the concepts of Christianity with and without Penal Substitution, I can't seem to find any actual differences.

To say that "God is loving and so forgives out sins when we repent" seems functionally equivalent (in terms of how it ties into other doctrines and experiences) to saying "God doesn't forgive sin and demands punishment, but out of love sent Christ to take our sins onto himself, and therefore 'forgives' our sins when we repent". Similarly to say "God decided at the beginning of time that he would perform a final eternal judgment based on faith in Christ" seems functionally equivalent to "God decided at the beginning of time he would perform a final eternal judgment based on righteousness, but no humans could possibly achieve the required standard, but anyone who has faith gets righteousness imputed to them from Christ and thus passes the final judgment because of their faith in Christ."

In other words, the exact consequences to us and experiences of a penal substitutionary system seem to be able to be replicated without all the penal substitutionary doctrines being there. Thus if you isolated the penal substitutionary system as a 'black box' and just consider the inputs and outputs to the system (ie its functional effects), then you can't actually tell just by looking at how the black box is working whether it's penal substitution there or not. Someone could switch out the entire black box and replace it with another black box filled with non-PS theology that performs exactly the same function within the wider theological system.

What does this mean? Well, on the one hand, it doesn't affect the truth value of penal substitution (ie whether it is true or not). Whether PS is true or false is totally independent of any functional analysis about how it interacts with observable experience. But on the other hand, if something is functionally equivalent to its own non-existence then it is of zero importance and relevance. This is why in Science a really important thing about a theory is that it's testable. If it is functionally equivalent to other theories then it's totally impossible to tell which theory is actually the true one.

PS in my estimation seems to come pretty close to being functionally equivalent to a theology that contains no PS. The implication of this is that it is not an important doctrine. It might be true, but it isn't important that it's true. It's truth does not have effects on our lives that are any different to the effects its falsity would have on our lives. In fact in my experience it is fairly common among the average evangelical to hold all the standard doctrines (salvation by faith, good works flow from true faith, eternal life for believers, forgiveness upon repentance) which are themselves functionally equivalent to PS, without bothering to add PS on the grounds that "it doesn't make any sense" (as one boy on TV describing his faith put it). The tendency is to embrace the evangelical paradigm in general and ignore PS because this is perfectly doable, and for people who don't see PS as making logical sense it makes sense to swap out PS and maintain functional equivalence.

So, in summary, I do not think it can be validly claimed that PS is an important or central doctrine within the Christian faith, when it can be so easily in theory and practice swapped-out for other ideas. Whether PS is actually true or not or is taught in the bible or not is something we have to decide for ourselves. But whichever is the case it makes no direct difference to our wider theological paradigm and to our everyday experiences, because PS is very close to functionally equivalent to its own non-existence, and as a result of this is simply unimportant. The difference between "a God who is loving and forgives sins out of love" and "a God who demands justice be repaid but removes this need from himself by Jesus and thus forgives sins out of love" lies only in the semantics, logic and character of God depicted within this statements and not at all in the resultant functionality of these two doctrines or how they relate to our everyday experience of life.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Romans, Jews and Gentiles, chapter 9

There seems to be a good bit of diversity in scholarly opinion at the moment about whether Paul's letter to the Romans had a target audience of a mixed Jew-Gentile church, a predominantly Jewish church, an Israelite only church, or a Gentile only church. The Gentile-only hypothesis seems to be gaining ground in recent years. At the moment I think this theory faces some serious difficulties when it comes to interpreting Romans 1-2, but I may yet be convinced.

Some clarity may be brought to this situation about the audience and argument of Romans as recent historical research into the meanings of key terms becomes better known:
  • "Jew" (lit. Judean), person following the ancestral customs of the Judeans. Not necessarily of Judean ancestry, though usually so.
  • "Greek", a person following Greek customs and speaking Greek. Not necessarily of Greek ancestry, though usually so.
  • "Israelite", a person descended from Jacob.
  • "Gentiles" (lit. nations). It is still debated whether this word can mean "Israelites living among the nations" or "anyone living among the nations" or whether it refers solely to people of non-Israelite descent, or whether it can mean different ones of these at different times.
I have always had a kind of default view that Paul was writing to a Roman church containing a mixed population of Jewish Israelites and Greek Gentiles, and that he was arguing for equality between the two. So I was intrigued to see in Witherington's commentary on Romans that I have just started reading, him suggest that Paul is trying to maintain a slight Jewish privilege to a Gentile audience. Such passages as "first the Jew then the Greek" come to my mind, implying equality yet primacy for Jews. So Witherington's suggestion may well have merit. But I was even more intrigued when he suggested that this idea be applied to Romans 9-11 in his introduction (I'm not up to those chapters in the commentary itself yet).

As a bit of background, I've long been a Romans 9 skeptic... ie all the interpretations of this complex passage I have ever seen or heard or tried to construct myself have struck me as unconvincing and implausible, because the models are a poor fit with the text. But it struck me that that Witherington's idea that Paul is defending Jewish/Israelite primacy to a predominantly Greek/Gentile church is quite possibly very helpful in making sense of the passage. Perhaps then, some of my difficulties in understanding the passage came from my assumptions of a Jewish Christian Israelite audience of Romans. If Paul is defending God's choice of Jews as his People to a Gentile congregation it makes sense of some parts of Rom 9 that didn't make much sense if Paul is defending God's rejection of Jews to a Jewish congregation.

I always find it interesting to see how perfectly innocent seeming assumptions can cause real difficulties in weird ways.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Anselm and Aquinas on Satisfaction

Anselm is famous for giving the first detailed explanation of the Satisfaction theory of the atonement around 1100AD. The Satisfaction model eventually developed into Penal Substitution, and there are many similarities. Basically Satisfaction sets the atonement against a backdrop of the medieval feudal system, while Penal Substitution moves these ideas into a law-court setting. Anselm's work represents the first time in church history that any ideas close to penal substitution are explained and defended systematically in any level of detail.

Of course, purists would say Satisfaction is not Penal Substitution, since there are some differences, some reasonably significant. eg in Satisfaction Christ doesn't really have to suffer, only be perfectly obedient to God's will - God only wants some form (any form) of reparations made for sin, he has no particularly desire that there be punishment or suffering. As a result, Satisfaction tends to be considered slightly less theologically offensive than PS by those who object to the idea of a God who demands suffering. (In fact, for Steve Chalke, it seems to be this difference that makes him think Satisfaction is okay and penal substitution is "cosmic child abuse") Often therefore, despite their similarities, PS and Satisfaction are treated as different models of the atonement. But given that the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions managed to mistake even Ransom from Satan for Penal Substitution I was extremely surprised not to see Anselm on their list of teachers of Penal Substitution.

I see on their website they say:
Anselm did not teach penal substitution... Thus his omission from our list of those who have endorsed penal substitution was not accidental.

I can accept that view as valid, certainly. That was my thought when I read their book and saw they'd left out Anselm. I was particularly mystified however when I saw they'd put Thomas Aquinas in their list and quoted him teaching the Satisfaction model... they called it Penal Substitution. In their quote of him, Aquinas even uses the word "Satisfaction". So if they are really so awake to the fact that Anselm's Satisfaction model is not PS then why could they not spot Aquinas teaching Satisfaction when he specifically says he is? Elsewhere in their book they cite Eleanor Stump's article on Aquinas' Satisfaction doctrine... if they had read that article they would know Aquinas teaches Satisfaction and what he means by this. So again, I just can't fathom what was going through their heads in including Aquinas but not Anselm in their list of PS supporters.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Athanasius and Penal Substitution

Athanasius was a particularly influential and controversial theologian in the fourth century AD. One of his works is a medium-length detailed analysis of his views on the atonement, called On the Incarnation of the Word.

The main model of atonement he spells out there is called Recapitulation, or the Incarnational Model. This model conceives of the problem facing creation as being that it is decaying into non-existence due to separation from God. The solution is therefore for God to unite himself metaphysically to the created order, and this was achieved through his becoming man. In the person of Jesus Christ, God and man were perfectly united and therefore by virtue of Jesus' human life creation was saved from non-existence. Jesus' act in this manner is universal in its effects - all creation has been saved from non-existence. Now we have immortality and eternal existence provided for us by virtue of this saving action of Jesus.

This does not however mean that immortal existence is necessarily going to be happy for us - there is still the final judgment of God to heaven or hell. Clearly prior to Jesus' saving us from non-existence there could be neither heaven nor hell nor final judgment, as our souls would have simply ceased to exist. Athanasius takes the view that final judgment is judged according to virtue, and that Christ was a teacher of how to live a virtuous life and by following his teachings we can achieve a positive judgment. Thus, for example, in the conclusion to his On the Incarnation he writes:
[Christ] will Himself be Judge, judging each and all according to their deeds done in the body, whether good or ill. Then for the good is laid up the heavenly kingdom, but for those that practice evil outer darkness and the eternal fire. (De Inc. 56)
It is against this background that we need to examine the claim that Athanasius teaches Penal Substitution. There is actually some level of merit to this claim, as long as you don't mind flexing your definition of PS a bit. Athanasius goes way beyond anything seen elsewhere in the Church Fathers in saying that Christ took on himself God's punishment toward us and exhausted it. He uses plenty of substitutionary language about Christ as our substitute, exhausting the power of the penalty against us in himself.

But... he places all of this penal substitutionary talk into his Recapitulation paradigm. The penalty that gets substituted is non-existence (not hell, like in modern PS). For Athanasius the problem of non-existence is solved by Jesus in a way that combines Recapitulation and penal substitution. Although, perhaps a better phrase would be "attempted penal participation" as he sees Christ trying to suffer the same punishment we do and in trying to participate in our punishment destroying the punishment itself as a result, rather than suffering it instead of us. An apt and amusing analogy, given Athanasius' logic, would be if an Elephant committed a crime so the police put it in jail and being too big to fit in the jail the Elephant burst all the cell walls and thus the jail was destroyed and no humans could ever be put in it again. According to Athanasius, Christ tries to take on man's punishment of death, but since he is Life Itself, death gets obliterated in the course of him trying to die. This penal particpation and recapitulation of Christ is universally effective - all mankind is saved from non-existence as a result, and we don't need to know about it or have faith in it or relying on it for it to be effective for us. It also has nothing directly to do with the final judgment (apart from allowing there to be one).

So, yes, penal substitutionary stuff is there in Athanasius's writing in a way, but it's conceived as a solution to an entirely different problem to what it's seen today as solving. If we limit our focus to "how does a human pass God's final judgment and go to heaven rather than hell" rather than "what did Christ in general achieve", then penal substitutionary thinking is not present in Athanasius'. Getting to heaven in his view is achieved by virtue which is achieved by following Christ's teachings.

So I would not say "Athanasius teaches penal substitution" without qualifying my statement heavily. What he teaches looks nothing much like the PS we are familiar with... it works quite differently as a solution to an entirely different problem, and has no relation to the criteria by which we go to heaven or hell. In this sense, "Athanasius does not teach the Penal Substitutionary model of the atonement" would be a far more accurate general statement. The authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions however hold Athanasius up as one of their best and most important proofs of the Fathers teaching their view of Penal Substitution...

Gregory Nazianzus and Penal Substitution

I was particularly shocked to see the writers of Pierced For Our Transgressions include Gregory Nazianzus (an archbishop of Constantinople in the fourth century AD under whom the Nicene Creed was finalized) in their list of Penal Substitution advocates. There is a particularly famous passage in Gregory's writings rejecting a form of the Ransom from Satan view (highly unusual in this period, and interesting because his friend Gregory of Nyssa endorsed the form of the Ransom from Satan view being here rejected) which also equally rejects out of hand in passing any type of Penal Substitution:
We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a "ransom" belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? (Orations 45:22)

From elsewhere in his writings we find out that Gregory Nazianzus held a combination of Moral Exemplar, Recapitulation and Christus Victor. Gregory was also a strong advocate of Origen's theological views, and these included the view that God only ever gave punishments for the purposes of morally improving people (thus, Origen's view was that hell was not eternal and comprised sufferings inflicted to achieve moral reform). Obviously such a view has incompatibility problems with Penal Substitution. Gregory, in this vein, comments:
it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment. (Or. 45:8)

Not only is Gregory a theologian who explicitly rejects penal substitution, not only does he hold well developed views of the atonement that are not penal substitution, but further to this, penal substitution is incompatible with his other theological beliefs. Knowing this, I was extremely surprised to see Gregory Nazianzus' name on the PFOT list of people who taught penal substitution.

The quote of him that these writers claim proves he taught penal substitution seems random. Gregory talks in this passage about Christ saving mankind, but doesn't explain here the mechanism by which he thinks this worked. As I mentioned, he makes his views on the mechanics of atonement clearer elsewhere. So the quotation of this passage as proving Gregory taught penal substitution strikes me as just bizarre. They are once again claiming penal substitution is taught by an ancient theologian who just doesn't teach it.

Ransom from Satan is not Penal Substitution

A view of the atonement that was particularly popular from about the fourth century AD through to the eleventh was a view called The Ransom Model or Christus Victor, or Ransom From Satan. This view came in a large number of variations, but what they all had in common was that they saw the problem that humanity had as having to do with the power of Satan over humanity. Satan was seen as having powers detrimental to humanity such as control of souls in the afterlife, control of the world in this life, the ability to influencing men to vice etc. Christ was thus conceived of somehow defeating Satan and the evil powers and spirits and Death, whether through force, trickery or by his very nature. Almost no two writers agree in the precise details, but some form of this view is present in most writers from 313-1100AD (when Anselm attacked the form of the Ransom Model popular in his time).

Obviously, the Ransom model is not penal substitution, and it is often contrasted with it as an alternative model of the atonement, or they can be both held together to produce a more "complete" picture of what Christ achieved. In the Ransom model, humanity's problem is the devil, in PS it is God and his justice. In the Ransom model Christ defeats the devil and breaks his hold on mankind, whereas in PS Christ exhausts God's wrath toward us on our behalf. In some ways the two could not be more different.

Yet they can have some strong similarities. In some forms of the Ransom model it is our sin which puts us in the devil's power. In some forms of it Christ offers himself to the devil instead of us as a substitute. In some forms Christ suffers our punishment from the devil on our behalf. Thus advocates of the Ransom model can and do sometimes say that Christ suffers a punishment we deserved for our sin on our behalf as a substitute to free us from that punishment. That looks very similar to things advocates of Penal Substitution sometimes say.

There are hence strong similarities and strong differences between Ransom and Penal Substitution, as you would expect to see from two different models proposed independently as explanations for the same biblical data. But it would obviously be extremely sloppy thinking to confuse the two models, as they are ultimately quite different in what they affirm theologically. The Ransom from Satan model is not equivalent to Penal Substitution. If an advocate of Ransom from Satan should say Christ suffered our punishment as a substitute, which they are perfectly entitled to say under their view, then they are not somehow suddenly teaching Penal Substitution rather than Ransom from Satan. It would be simply a total mistake of reading comprehension to take passages from authors teaching Ransom from Satan and say they taught penal substitution.

Guess what the writers of Pierced For Our Transgressions do? They misclassify several writers in the period 313-1100AD who teach Ransom as teaching PS on the grounds of quotes that talk about Christ as taking a substitutionary punishment on our behalf. The writers of PFOT seize on these quotes and say look, they taught PS. One of their quotes even has the exact phrase "ransom... from the authority death" in it (Gelasius). If they'd even read the 'book' (ie section of the work) that their quote from Eusebius is from (Dem. Evan. 10) they'd know it's about Ransom from Satan not PS. Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine also are all well-known for their Ransom from Satan views. The apparently ability of the PFOT writers to misconstrue writers teaching Ransom from Satan model as teaching penal substitution is very unhelpful.

PS from the Apostles to Milan

313AD marks an important date in the history of Christianity, when the Emperor Constantine announced that Christianity was no long illegal within the Roman Empire. Christianity went through a huge number of changes in the fourth century as a result. It moved quickly to become the religion of the Empire, with the Emperor as its head. The power of the state was used to suppress those deemed heretics. The world was quickly filled with nominal Christians who were "Christians" because it was the state religion, not out of any conviction they had. There were councils, creeds, and controversies which often got as political as they did religious. Thus, for those of us studying the theology of the early church, the date 313AD marks a distinct boundary.

The period from the time of the apostles and the New Testament to the Edict of Milan in 313 AD spans about 200 years. During this time, many books and letters were written by Christians and quite a large number of them survive. To give you some idea of how many, the standard English translation of these writings which contains most of the surviving works by most of the orthodox Christian writers of this period runs to over 6,500 pages. By comparison the average bible runs to about 1,000 pages. There is a lot of writings that survive from this early period, of all types: Pastoral letters, defenses of Christianity, commentaries on biblical books, descriptions of church practices, critiques of heretics, explanations of Christian doctrine, essays in defense of specific doctrines etc, and so we are far from ignorant about the theology of this period.

In the recent work written in defense of the doctrine of Penal Substitution Pierced For Our Transgressions, the authors attempt to respond to the standard claim that Penal Substitution was not taught prior to about 1500AD. I have studied the historical development of church doctrine, and I would myself from my own studies agree with that standard claim. Nothing that the writers of the book PFOT say convinced me otherwise. In order to "disprove" this standard claim which they believe is incorrect, the authors of PFOT say they will give a comprehensive list of quotes from the Church Fathers which teach penal substitution. This demonstrates, according to them, that PS has been taught consistently as an important doctrine throughout Church history.

Now the first thing I looked for when I saw their list was what references they make to writers from before 313AD, since writers from that period are one of my particular hobbies. So in their comprehensive list, how much of the 6,500+ pages surviving from 100AD to 313AD do they find teaches penal substitution? The answer is one paragraph... one paragraph buried deeply in the work of one writer in over six thousand pages of writings by more than twenty writers spanning two hundred years. Yeah, that shows it's a "central" doctrine... not. The central doctrines from this period are obvious - funnily enough they get talked about, and twenty pages per main doctrine would not be sufficient to hold all the quotes from these writers on major subjects of their theology which get mentioned by nearly every writer (depending on the topics of their works). Certainly if someone was going to allege to me that something was a standard doctrine in this period, I would want to see clear quotes from at least three authors that were well-spaced chronologically and geographically.

But anyway, this one paragraph, is in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho, section 95 out of 142. Justin's Jewish critic Trypho has just brought up the Old Testament passage about how those who are crucified are cursed by God, and therefore Jesus could not be the Messiah. Justin replies that he does not believe God cursed Jesus but rather suggests that this passage be linked with the "cursed is everyone who doesn't do all the things stated in the law" passage to mean that the curse Jesus experienced was not the curse of a God who rejected him, but that a curse against us was transferred to him. Is this teaching penal substitution? Well of course that depends on how you want to define penal substitution. The punishment Justin depicts Christ saving us from here is this-worldly - a curse pronounced by the law. The ancients believed in curses and dealt with them on a regular basis via various transfer rituals. Justin's not talking about us going to hell or heaven, it's just a regular curse and Christ transfers it. The effects of Christ's act is thus universally applicable, the curse is removed from everyone, no faith or anything like that is needed.

So Christ takes this curse from us to himself, and the curse is indirectly from God and applicable because of human sin. But there the similarity with PS ends... Christ's doing this is universally applicable and there is no faith needed on our part, and we do not gain eternal life because of it. It's not because God was forced to punish human sin, or because he was wrathful against us. It thus has similarities with Penal Substitution, but it's not PS. How widespread or important was this view among these early writers? Well, no other writer mentions it. Justin's key sentence in the passage concerned is phrased hypothetically as a question. Justin himself in the very next section says that for him the most worthwhile interpretation of the passage which Trypho has brought up (which says that those who are crucified are cursed) is not that Jesus was cursed by God but as a prophecy of the Jews crucifying and cursing both Christ and the Christians (Dial. 96).

In Justin's view, as clearly explained elsewhere in his writings repeatedly (not in one paragraph), salvation operates the same way it does in all the other writers of this period - a virtuous life and character comes through following the teachings of Jesus and leads to a positive final judgment. The idea that Justin teaches Penal Substitutionary atonement as his central view of salvation is simply flat-out not true. Hence the idea implied by PFOT that this one paragraph from Justin shows that PS was generally taught in this period is laughable. They can only find one paragraph in a corpus of well over 6,500 pages of the earliest Christian writings and that paragraph doesn't even teach their doctrines.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Hilasterion in Romans 3:25

In Romans 3:25 there is a particularly (in)famous word: hilasterion. Biblical scholarship, and bible translations for the past century at least have been all over the place on this word, entirely unable to decide what it means. It has been variously translated with words and phrases such as: sacrifice of atonement, place of atonement, propitiation, expiation, placate, conciliate, mercy seat.

Now hilasterion and its various related words appear to be normal words in ancient Greek for referring to two parties settling a feud, or making peace, or one appeasing the other and thereby achieving some form or reconciliation. Often the word is used in relation to appeasing the gods, but can be equally used for when two groups of humans make peace.

However the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek uses the word hilasterion as a name for a piece of the ark of the covenant often called the "mercy seat" that was on top of the ark and overshadowed by the Cherubim, on which the high priest would sprinkle blood once a year and on which God's presence would 'sit'. In Ezekiel in the LXX the word is used to refer to a particular piece of an altar, a 'ledge'.

Those are the basics. So the questions that face scholars include:
  1. Is Paul meaning this as a reference to the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant, or using this in the normal usage of the Greek word? Or using it in reference to Ezekiel's altar ledges? I am somewhat partial to Stowers' argument that since the Ark had not existed for many years prior to Paul's writing Romans, and since the Temple of Paul's time had no hilasterion in it, he is more likely to be not referring to the Ark... but the majority opinion has generally tended to the view that he is.

  2. If the Ark, what is the best translation? Mercy Seat? Dwelling Place of God? Place of Atonement? Sacrifice of Atonement?

  3. If so, what theological significance should be derived from this? What is Paul meaning when using this imagery of Jesus as part of the Ark of the Covenant? Is Jesus the New Ark? Is he the new place of God's presence dwelling with man? Is Paul referring to the atoning rituals that took place centered around the mercy seat? Is he seeing Jesus as a sacrifice taking place on the mercy seat to please God?

  4. If Paul is using the word in the normal Greek manner, then what is the best translation? It's not a particularly common word in Greek so it's not easy to tell. It seems to mean something vaguely like "appeasing gift", but no one can agree precisely what.

  5. If it's normal Greek usage... God is the one said to be setting forth the hilasterion, so is he giving the gift to us removing our enmity toward him, like Paul says elsewhere? Or is he, more complicatedly, providing a hilasterion toward himself on our behalf?

  6. Regardless of which meaning Paul is thinking of for hilasterion, how literally is he using it? To what extent is it a metaphor? (eg if Christ is the "mercy seat", then clearly Christ is not literally a piece of gold-coated wood that sits on the top of the Ark of the covenant.)
The amount of scholarly work that has been poured into this problem is ridiculous. Plenty of PHDs have been done and books written on the subject, and virtually every work dealing with Romans 3:25 will try and deal with this. There is no consensus regarding translation or meaning. (for further reading, a guy who did a PHD on the topic in 2000 summarizes it here)

At the end of the day, it is my view that there is simply not enough evidence to say what Paul was meaning. It is widely believed that in Romans 3:22-26 Paul is quoting a popular Christian statement of faith which would have been known to and understood by his original readers. Thus, the original readers of Romans would have understood what the hilasterion in Romans 3:25 was meaning because they knew in advance. Whereas we today cannot know what it meant because Paul simply does not provide sufficient evidence. Thus, not only do I admit my ignorance of what Paul was meaning here, I assert my skeptical belief that no one today can determine with any level of surety or probability whatsoever what the original meaning was.

If I had to write a Bible translation of the passage I don't know what I'd write... maybe "reconciliation gift" with a footnote saying "or 'dwelling place of God'. Greek very unclear." If I had to say what I thought Paul was most likely meaning theologically here, I would lean towards the view he is speaking of God sending Christ to us as a reconciliation gift to remove our enmity towards himself, reconciling us from being enemies into friends like what is said in Rom 5:10, 1 Cor 5:16-21, Col 1:22. But that's pure speculation, Paul could be meaning almost anything, and there is no worthwhile purpose in trying to exegete ambiguous passages.

So I was somewhat amused when reading Pierced For Our Transgressions to see them argue that in Romans 3:25 hilasterion "indisputably" means propitiation and that therefore it "undeniably" teaches penal substitution. They make it all look quite simple - the only issue they discuss is whether hilasterion and variants mean "expiation" like C.H. Dodd thought or "propitiation" like L. Morris thought. They believe that Morris is right, and thus that Penal Substitution is undeniably taught in Romans 3:25. Ignorance is a truly powerful means of proof.