Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Soteriological Notes

This paper consists of some personal reflections on some of the Soteriological material presented in class. My initial reaction to most of the material was how far removed talk of Christ’s atoning work on the cross was from the actual biblical source material and its Jewish-Christian context. While Anselm, for instance, retains the notion of substitution one finds in the New Testament (unfortunately ὑπέρ in these contexts is often translated “for” or “for the sake of” when the sense “in place of” is in fact syntactically more probable), he sets it in a very different frame of reference than the salvation-historical framework one finds in the New Testament, where Jesus’ atonement is linked with Torah and Israel’s plight under its curse (particularly in Galatians and Romans). Paul, for instance, seems to see Israel’s transgression of the Torah and subsequent condemnation by it as playing some important, non-accidental role in producing salvation (see especially Galatians 3, Romans 5, 9-11).

None of this, however, makes it into the considerations of the mostly ahistorical, abstract accounts of Christ’s work that we have studied. That is not to say that there is not much valuable in these accounts and that a more biblically-oriented account would not be understood at least partly in these terms when elaborated philosophically, but it does mean that these accounts necessarily leave out some of the key data that must be taken into account when constructing a view of the atonement. On the other accounts, Jesus might as well have come and died as a Greek, an Arab, or a Bantu – his Jewishness and Jewish context does not seem to play any part in the makeup of his saving work.

While Aquinas keeps much of Anselm’s view, it looks like Aquinas (at least according to our reading from Caesario (81)) eventually held that Christ’s satisfaction on the cross was not ultimately necessary for God to justly save us. It was simply more convenient in obtaining (mostly subjective) goods which more naturally flow from Christ’s satisfaction on the cross than from elsewhere. Of course, since it is the omnipotent God we are speaking of, it is not clear what it would mean to speak of him doing something more easily or conveniently in one way than another. It seems to me, however, that this makes it difficult to see the point of the atonement. If God could just as well accomplish our salvation in some other way, Christ’s crucifixion seems to represent pointless, unnecessary pain and suffering. Sure, it gets us redemption and all sorts of goods, but it was not really necessary for all of that. It certainly seems that we need some kind of stricter, less contingent connection between Christ’s work and our salvation.

Herbert McCabe (in his 2002 book God Still Matters) takes the problems with Anselm and Aquinas recounted above, however, and makes them even worse. This is something that bothered me quite a bit when I read him. He at least tries to put in some historical context but his grasp of that context is questionable and gets both Second Temple Judaism and its relation to Jesus and the New Testament wrong, importing much later (and ironically often more Protestant) Christian criticisms of Jews as unloving and legalistic (and Christ as the ancient equivalent of the stereotypical 1960s hippie – pro-love and anti-law or anti-authority) back into the first century, thus divorcing Jesus from his Jewish context in a way not justified by the New Testament or Second Temple evidence.

In any case, the nod to apparent historical context essentially functions in the McCabe work as a mere foil to press yet another basically ahistorical understanding of Christ’s work. It becomes all about an abstract principle of love and the preaching of that love, and the kingdom of God becomes more or less just the realization of that love on earth. Indeed, only the humanity of Christ seems to be important in McCabe’s chapter, as it is Christ’s full humanity and the perfect love wherefrom that does all the work here – the divinity seems to be well-hidden indeed.

What is worse, however, is that, while at least Aquinas had some kind of goal for the crucifixion, even if it could have been accomplished differently, McCabe does not even seem to retain this much. Questions such as “Why did Jesus opt for crucifixion?” are basically replaced with “Why would humans crucify someone like him?” The second question would certainly be an interesting one, but it completely changes the subject so that we are no longer even speaking of Christ’s saving work or its goals anymore but rather fallen human psychology. McCabe’s answer, that this is what fallen people do to people who truly love and preach the same, does not really address or even acknowledge the need for Jesus to die, or why he would go to Jerusalem in order to die in accordance with God’s will, both of which are forcefully presented in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels (but which several of our readings would appear at first glance to want to avoid). McCabe, in other words, substitutes essentially ahistorical principles of armchair human psychology for the divine objectives of the cross – a pale substitution indeed.

McCabe completely ignores the perspective in the Gospels whereby Jesus in fact purposely provokes the hostile reaction of the leaders leading to death, going to Jerusalem in order to die precisely as the climax of his ministry and not, as McCabe would have it, the failure of it. It is precisely the culmination of his mission, not its failure (or even a failure then used victoriously by God). McCabe’s chapter, in effect, seems to make Jesus’ crucifixion just an accidental effect of telling people to love each other, without any real point, purpose, or objective effect. It is difficult to see in McCabe’s crucifixion any real, objective redemption rather than just an accident of history. It instead becomes a mere pastoral illustration of what happens when people talk “too much” about love.

What many of these accounts lack, then, would need to be remedied in a more serviceable account of the atonement of Christ on the cross. What we need is an account that is based firmly in the biblical data and actually takes it all into account, taking the event of the crucifixion in its historical context and its biblical place within the salvation-historical narrative of Scripture rather than simply trying to abstract from it a mere instance of some acontextual timeless principle. From these beginnings, it can then engage philosophically and systematically with the biblical theology and concepts and understand what is contained therein in new ways. At this point, however, it would be best I think to draw a tighter connection between Christ’s death and its results, making the crucifixion once again an actual need of ours met by God in Christ according to the divine plan for our salvation.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.
Please find a completely different Understanding of what Jesus taught and demonstrated while he was alive.

On the fabricated origins & political purposes of the Bible

On the nature of Real God

Ian and Gilda said...

I glanced over some of that and, truthfully, I find it rather hard to swallow. Lots of assertion with little to nothing to back it up. Historically speaking, for instance, I think the evidence is for something more Jewish, more like what's in the Gospels, not what's in these links.