Atonement: I’ve Got a Problem–But So Do You

As I mentioned a couple days ago, I had a chance to listen to the Roger Olson interview on Homebrewed Christianity’s podcast. He articulated something that I’ve heard from quite a number of theologians. It’s a beautiful answer to the problem of God giving God’s Son to die for us, an answer to accusations that the cross is tantamount to divine child abuse.

It goes something like this: the idea that God is abusing his Son misses the point that Jesus is God. This is not God sacrificing some human, but God giving Godself for humanity.

This is a challenge to me on two fronts.

First, as a biblical scholar, this is not the language that the NT uses to describe the relationship between Jesus and God as it comes to describe the cross.

Even the high Christology of John puts it like this: “God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only son.” Indeed, John’s Jesus says that the Father loves him because he does the Father’s will–going to the cross to die for his friends.

Mark is more stark, with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying for deliverance from the cross.

In the “high Christology” passage of Philippians 2 says that Jesus’ exaltation comes because he was obedient to the point of death on the cross. This is the same act of which Paul speaks in Rom 5–the one act of obedience through which the many are made righteous.

Jesus is pleasing to the Father, to God, precisely because as Son he obeys the command of the Other, the Father, to die.

When, for example, feminist critics of atonement complain about the atonement as divine child abuse, they are basing their hermeneutical dissatisfaction on a more accurate exegesis of the New Testament than the theologians who defend the cross by saying that God gave Godself.

It is, in fact, God the Father “who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all.” Those are strong and troubling words, and I’m not sure that we can hear them on the basis of the Trinitarian objection. This is not self-giving love in that Trinitarian sense, but the sacrificial love that gives the most dearly loved other for the sake of salvation.

The second reason I am hesitant to jump on board with the Trinitarian answer to the problem of atonement is this: the suffering of Jesus the son is the story of the other sons and daughters of God as well.

It’s all well and good to say that God gave Godself, not another, to suffer on behalf of the world.

But what, then, are we to do with Romans 8? There, the way that we know we are children heading toward eternal inheritance is that we are suffering with the Suffering Child.

The Trinitarian formulation makes this worse, to my mind. God chooses to suffer of God’s own accord. As incarnate God, Jesus executes this divine decision. And then, God calls those who are not God to suffer if they want to be like the God who chose suffering freely. The Messiah suffers of his own decision, but those who would follow him are bound to follow the order that Jesus had from within (not from without): to take up their crosses.

Or, again, if it’s out of character for God to give up another, to not spare this human Messiah, what then are we to make of the God “who did not spare the natural branches” for the sake of the gentiles?

To remove the scandal of the Messiah’s death by pushing the Messiah back into the divine person only takes the problem of the suffering people of God and edges it back one notch. Left behind is still the entire NT ethic that insists that the identity of us–those who are not members of the Eternal Ontological Trinity–is also cross shaped.

If the only answer to the divine child abuse accusation is to appeal to the Trinity, doesn’t that make God a divine child abuser for having us, his earthly children, suffer with Christ if, indeed, we are to be glorified with him?

So yes, my late high Christology causes me a problem. I can’t simply say that when the NT says “the Father gave the son” that this really means “God gave Godself.” But the Trinitarian answer has its problem as well.

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