Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Blood of His Cross (7) – Vanhoozer (ii, cont’d)

agnusdeiVanhoozer accepts several aspects of the postmodern critique of atonement theology, especially the temptation to reduce atonement to one description of its intent and efficacy. “We need a way to think non-reductively about the cross” (397). No theory of the cross is adequate in itself, and all the theories together, will not exhaust the meaning and mystery that is the cross. In a typically amusing and insightful quip, Vanhoozer suggests that,

Some atonement theories may, ironically, partake more of what Luther called the ‘theology of glory’—a trust in human reason to find out the ways of God—than they do the ‘theology of the cross.’ The cross represents a powerful critique of attempts to ‘explain’ God as well as attempts to make oneself right before God (401-402).

Thus Vanhoozer also appreciates the postmodern emphasis on ‘excess’—the cross is a case of how much more (Romans 5:9), always and forever exceeding our understanding of its depths and effects. Nevertheless, Vanhoozer’s non-reductive reading of the cross cuts both ways, and he challenges the postmodern temptation to reduce the biblical testimony of the divine work at the cross to a work only of God’s love and not also of his justice, or to an exemplary rather than also an objective work of God on our behalf.

Vanhoozer’s theology of the atonement circles around several key features. First, he insists that the atonement must be understood within the economies of grace and covenant rather than an economy of exchange. God did not have to do anything; “there is no causal explanation for grace” (396). What God did do was give himself, a gift of gratuitous love beyond all reason. The death of Jesus must be understood in terms of Old Testament covenantal categories of exodus (liberation), exile (punishment), and restoration and return (reconciliation). Thus Jesus’ death includes both legal and relational aspects, both punitive/retributive and expiatory/ liberational aspects; these polarities must not be reduced on the one side or the other.

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:24). … What Jesus is claiming in the Last Supper is that his broken body and shed blood are the place where sin is dealt with…making possible life in the presence of God. … The shed blood is a sign that God has proved this covenant faithfulness precisely by undergoing the sanctions, legal and relational, for covenant disobedience (398, original emphasis).

Second, Vanhoozer insists that a doctrine of the atonement must give equal ultimacy to both God’s love and God’s light (his justice and holiness):

The death of Jesus represents both the excess that is constitutive of the gift (love), and the excess that is constitutive of one’s ethical duty towards another (justice, as understood by postmoderns). God’s reconciling act in the death of Christ was ‘excessive.’ In loving his enemies (Rom. 5:10), God brings his covenant partner to justice, not simply retribution. … God did not merely compensate for human sin; he did more. He did not simply make up sin’s deficit; he destroyed it. The New Testament, of course, knows this ‘excess’ by its proper covenantal name: grace. … The economy of covenantal grace is not exhausted by the logic of penal substitution even though the latter has a legitimate place (403-404).

Third, Vanhoozer’s understanding of the atonement is necessarily substitutionary: “Substitution is the principle that best corresponds to the preposition (hyper); God pours himself out for us, not in an economic exchange, but in an excess of justice and love” (403, slightly altered). Substitution is a necessary if not sufficient condition for understanding the biblical testimony to the death of Christ. Jesus died for us.

Finally, Jesus’ death is excessive, an economy of eschatological promise, gift and blessing whereby his death issues in the gift of the Holy Spirit—God’s self-gift to the believer—which bursts the limits of an economy of exchange and calls forth the free subjective response of the believer.

Jesus gives his body and blood for us, and in return we receive his Spirit, the operative principle of the new covenant and of the new age. Jesus’ death both creates and cleanses a new temple, the people of God. … Jesus’ death on the cross is a new exodus, a new Passover supper, a new return from exile, an entry into a new kind of promised land, a building of a new and better temple. God reconciles the world to himself by providing his own Son as a substitute for the exile that should be ours. Jesus is God’s gift, the goat that bears our guilt—the covenantal curse, separation from the promises of God—who in doing so enables our covenant restoration. Jesus’ death on the cross is at once an exodus and an exile, the condition of the possibility of our entry to the promised land of the Holy Spirit (399, original emphasis).

The Blood of His Cross (7) – Vanhoozer (ii)

agnusdeiKevin Vanhoozer’s essay “The Atonement in Postmodernity: Guilt, Goats and Gifts” (in Hill & James (eds), The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives, 367-404) responds to postmodern critiques of atonement theories generally, and the penal substitutionary theory of atonement specifically. For some postmodern theorists, atonement theories seeking to understand and explicate the death of Jesus are problematic on two fronts: first they are reductionist, attempting to ‘control’ the biblical material that witnesses to the death of Christ, and hence second, are violent, imposing a ‘system’ on this material.

The scandal of the cross, for postmoderns, is that theory reduces otherness precisely by explaining it. Postmoderns might say that we need to recover the scandal—the paradox, the ‘aporia’—of the cross through a ‘sacrifice’ of the intellect, acknowledging that conceptual thinking has here reached its limit, its death. … The challenge for theology is to ‘theorize’ the cross (i.e., in a doctrinal formulation) while simultaneously respecting it (i.e., as an ‘other’ that eludes our conceptual grasp). The problem is that theologies of the atonement seem unable to articulate a theory that explains the saving significance of Jesus’ death without betraying the rich testimonies to the event of his death (369, original emphasis).

With respect to penal substitution, the problem is not simply the attempt to render an explanation of the saving significance of Jesus’ death, but the content of the doctrine is also abhorrent: it is thought to legitimise personal and social violence by portraying God as violent, and thereby legitimising a view, practice, and system of retributive—violent—“justice.”

Hence, the scandal of the cross is not metaphysical (how could God suffer and die?) but moral: Does God need to be placated before he can love and forgive? Is God party to an economy of retaliatory exchange? (372, original emphasis).

The idea of atonement as a form of exchange is repudiated by postmoderns: “The operative concept in postmodern theological understandings of the atonement is excess, not exchange. The death of Jesus exceeds our attempts to explain it” (396, original emphasis). God, in this view, does not maintain a ‘moral’ or ‘legal’ economy in which every wrongdoing attracts a penalty of retribution, for retribution alone is not transformative (378).

Vanhoozer examines Girard’s theory that Jesus’ death was as the scapegoat that unmasked the ‘scapegoat mechanism’ which functions at the heart and foundation of every society, culture and institution. The scapegoat mechanism, according to Girard, secures the peace of a particular group by assigning blame and violent retribution to a third party, a victim which by its sacrifice saves the group from tearing itself apart. By taking the place of the scapegoat, Jesus unmasked and repudiated this sacred sacrificial violence. His death was not a sacrifice for us, but rather his exemplary death shows that pattern of divine love which submits to human violence in order to absorb and transcend it.

Jesus’ suffering and death were necessary because of the world’s inability to free itself from the cycle of rivalry and violence, not because God’s justice demanded death. … The death of Christ is thus a unique breakthrough, a decisive event in the history of human consciousness. The purpose of his death is to end all scapegoating, all sacrifices (387).

Postmodern theorists and theologians have also questioned the ‘economy of the gift’ (Vanhoozer discusses Milbank, Derrida, Marion, and Ricoeur):

As soon as we give something to someone, we put that person in our debt, thus taking, not giving. The gift disappears in a web of calculation, interest and measure. Such is the aporia of the gift, according to Derrida. It cannot be given without creating an economy of debt (392, original emphasis).

So long as the gift of God is viewed as part of an economy of debt or exchange, God is implicated in a dubious and oppressive system. But the idea of gift need not be reduced to a system of exchange in which the gift issues in debt and duty. Rather, a gift may exceed all expectations:

Ricoeur especially wants us to get beyond the ‘moral vision,’ together with its economy of retribution and logic of equivalence, in order to perceive the ‘eschatological vision,’ with its economy of restoration and its logic of extravagant excess. The moral vision is guilty, Ricoeur thinks, of an overly literalistic reading. … It is only by interpreting within the old economy of law, where the loss of an eye demands exact compensation (another eye), that we arrive at the notion of penal substitution theory of atonement. … In Ricoeur’s view, the doctrine of atonement belongs, not in an economy of crime and punishment, but in a hyper-economy of gift and grace (395-396).

Continued tomorrow…

A Prayer on Sunday

Morning-Prayer“Lord Almighty, we say we want to serve you,
we say we want to help others less fortunate than ourselves,
we say we want justice.
But the truth is, we want power and status because we so desperately need to be loved. Free us from our self-fascination and the anxious activity it breeds,
so that we might be what we say we want to be—loved by you
and thus capable of unselfish service. Amen”
(Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken, 49).