The provocative title has gotten the attention of my seven-year old who asked me yesterday, “Papa, what does he say in the end?” “What?” “What does he say at the end of the book? Did God kill Jesus?”
It’s an unnerving question.
One reason I think that those biblical engagements (and my critiques of them) are important, is because they influence (and/or reflect the same influence as) the discussion of atonement models.
The Payment Model
Tony first tackles the “Payment Model,” a broad rubric that might include Anselm’s restoration of divine honor or the later penal substitution models.
One problem for anyone dealing with this model is that its proponents have become a caricature of themselves. Tony cites Mark Driscoll shouting at his congregation, “Some of you, God hates you!”
Proponents of the Payment Model definitely seem to fail the “smell test.”
But the view itself does not come in for an even-handed assessment. Tony says, “In some versions, [God’s] disappointment evolves into wrath. This does not paint an appealing image of God, or is it very reasonable.” Tony has also linked this with predestination, which I think is tremendously problematic. Every freewill Baptist I’ve known believes that the Gospel is essentially about Penal Substitution.
The question Tony is asking is “What does the Payment model say about God?”
I think we need to wrestle, first, with what advocates of the Payment model say it says about God. They would say that it indicates the depth of God’s love for the world (unless they’re being idiots on stage like Driscoll). They would cite John 3:16 and say that this salvation from God’s wrath is the manifestation of God’s love.
They might cite Rom 5:8-10 in their defense: God’s love is demonstrating in giving his son for us, a death that results in salvation from God’s wrath.
The idea that Jesus saves us from the wrath of the Day of Judgment is virtually ubiquitous in the NT. It’s contained in the earliest Gospel summary in 1 Thess 1:9-10: Jesus rescues us from the coming wrath.
I left the Payment Model chapter much like I left the Bible sections: wondering if we have to plug our ears to a significant portion of the biblical interpretation of how Jesus’ death works if we are to hang onto the other portions that we like better.
The Victory Model
The Victory Model (Christus Victor) comes in for somewhat lighter treatment, but with some of the same characteristics. Tony’s assumption that acknowledgment of other spiritual beings whom God might have to defeat is beneath the narrative of the biblical God controls his assessment of the model, and his interpretation of scripture.
But the idea that sin is a power greater than the sum of its parts is fairly ubiquitous in scripture, and resonates with human experience. The notion that the rectifying work of God would have to overcome these powers that array themselves against human flourishing is one that I think needs to lie near the heart of our understanding of what it means to say that the reign of God has drawn near.
Tony concludes, “Jesus called his disciples to follow him, not into battle, but into fullness of life and into a relationship with God” (p. 153).
Ok. But then there is the bit about taking up your cross to follow. Paul talks about filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. And Revelation 12 talks about the saints’ faithfulness unto death participating in the overthrow of Satan’s power.
There is an opportunity here for Tony to enrich our understanding of atonement and of what happens in Christian discipleship (participation in the setting to rights of the cosmos) that is missed through the critique of a system that the book is impatient with.
It seems that as the book moves on Tony comes to models he likes better.
He likes what Abelard’s love-suffused model brings to the table, and practically gushes over the Divinity (divinization) model before highlighting some difficulties.
These chapters have the potential to make a significant contribution to readers because they are introducing models that people may not be aware of, and are doing so a bit more even-handedly than is done with the more popular versions.
Perhaps the most interesting and challenging position is “The Mirror Model,” in which he explores René Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry, and the ways that it explains the human propensity for sacrifice. The cross becomes the culmination of this history, a moment when we finally see that sacrifice is hollow and destructive and can turn from the way of violence.
Tony offers some good critiques of this view. In addition to the fact that it doesn’t require God or claim that anything supernatural as such happens on the cross, I questioned whether the anthropological explanation accurately reflected the sacrificial practices of peoples. It didn’t ring true to what I know of the ancient world.
Perhaps my frustration with the book is that it starts with assumptions that I think should be the meat of the conversation itself. Most of the questions it raises for me swirl around what the relationship should be between scriptural depictions and contemporary theological positions.
The fact of the matter is that we do not live in the same world as that in which the Bible was written. It is also the fact that the Biblical writers made use of a wide variety of metaphors to talk about how the cross works.
Put those things together and I do think there’s a recipe for creative engagement and development of new metaphors of atonement for a new time and place.
More importantly, we need to continue to emphasize as Tony has that what we say about the cross has consequences. An angry God will produce an angry people. A God obsessed with ticky-tacky accounting of every legal violation might create a people with the highest incarceration rates of any country in the industrialized world. A violent God may well be the One invoked to bless the country that is dropping bombs that will kill tens of thousands.
What we say about the cross is too important to leave the question unaddressed. We have to meet it head-on. And if a model does, in fact, fail the smell test, we need to be willing to relegate it to the sidelines in favor of one that helps produce the Fruit of the Spirit.
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