Thursday, December 08, 2005

What Did Aslan's Death Accomplish?

In preparation for the film tomorrow, Narnia fans may wish to ponder the following. Today, while sick in bed, I finished reading Stephen Finlan's Problems with Atonement and will review the book in detail later (when my head is less fogged and bowels more calm). For now here's an outline of the various meanings of Christ's death found in the New Testament and later church thinkers. What exactly does it mean to say that "Christ died for us"? As a Unitarian I don't profess this but find the question engaging.

In the New Testament

There are four (or six) understandings of Christ's death in the New Testament: martyrdom, sacrifice (three kinds), scapegoat, and ransom redemption.

1. Martyrdom. Christ died as an example to be followed (Gal 2:19; Rom 6:6-7,11; I Pet 2:21-24,4:1-2).

2. Sacrifice. Christ died --

(a) -- as the new paschal lamb, in order to protect believers from God's wrath in judgment (I Cor 5:7,11:23-26; I Pet 1:19; Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29/Lk 22:14-20).

(b) -- as the new covenant treatise, in order to make peace between people and renew commitment to God (Gal 3:14; I Cor 11:25; Mk 14:24/Mt 26:28/Lk 22:20; Heb 7:22,8:6,9:15-21).

(c) -- as the new place of atonement, or an atoning sacrifice, in order to reconcile humanity to God through forgiveness (Rom 3:25; Mt 26:28; Eph 1:7; I Jn 2:2,4:10; Heb 2:17,9:11-14,22,26,10:10,19).

3. Scapegoat. Christ died as a scapegoat, taking on curses and bearing away peoples’ sins (Gal 3:13; II Cor 5:21; Rom 6:6,7:4,8:3; Heb 9:28).

4. Ransom Redemption. Christ died in order to pay the price for humanity's freedom from captivity under evil (Gal 3:13; Rom 3:24; I Cor 6:20,7:23; Eph 1:7; I Pet 1:18; Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28; I Tim 2:6; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:14-15,9:12,15).

After the New Testament

Stephen Finlan writes as follows:

"A study of the key patristic developers of the Christian doctrine of atonement finds that they do something that Paul does (find saving significance in the death of Jesus) but also do something that Paul never does: locate the full significance of salvation in one particular metaphor for the death as an atoning act. Paul switches metaphors with a rapidity that suggests any one metaphor, by itself, would be misleading." (Problems with Atonement, p 66)

Paul, more than any NT writer, used all of the above -- martyrdom, sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom redemption -- depending on a particular point he needed to get across. While later church thinkers were also capable of fusing ideas, the categories would always be subordinate to one of the following three.

1. Ransom Redemption. Based on the biblical understanding (#4 above), but introducing deceit into the picture. God tricked the devil by offering Jesus as a ransom payment to free humanity from his influence, and Satan was foiled by the resurrection. (Origen, Augustine, Gregory the Great; dominant theory in the 2nd-10th centuries)

2. Satisfaction. An honor-shame understanding of the atoning value of Jesus' death, reflecting the feudal structure of medieval times. Sin dishonors God, thus requiring satisfaction. Christ died in the place of humanity, in order to satisfy the demands of honor. (Anselm; dominant theory in the 11th-15th centuries)

3. Penal Substitution. A legal understanding of the atoning value of Jesus' death, which remains most popular today. Sin incurs a debt to God because it breaks his law, thus requiring justice. Christ died in the place of humanity, in order to satisfy the demands of justice. (Luther, Calvin; dominant from the 16th century to modern times)

Of the above three, ransom redemption is obviously the most biblically based. Satisfaction and penal substitution are similar to one another, both rather distant from biblical understandings -- though the satisfaction model at least shares the honor-shame outlook of the ancient Mediterranean.

I'll have more to say about this stuff later. In the meantime, Narnia fans should ponder these ideas in relation to what C.S. Lewis thought Aslan’s death on the stone table accomplished. And who knows, I may actually drag myself to see this movie after all...but when I'm feeling better.

11 Comments:

Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

I think "redemption" in the Christian Church is more general than you give it credit for. The Eastern Orthodox view of atonement seems to be big on the redemption aspect.

12/08/2005  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Yes, and satisfaction is still prevalent in Catholic thought. When most people today think of atonement, however, it seems to be the penal substitution model that comes to mind. But I'm painting broad brushes here, not trying to slight the Orthodox.

12/09/2005  
Blogger Stephen Finlan said...

I should not have used the word "patristic" in the passage Loren quoted about "key patristic developors of the atonement doctrine." It makes it sound that I am speaking about the Greek fathers, when I am not. The people I have in mind are the LATIN patristic writers Augustine and Gregory the Great, and the Reformation theologians Luther and Calvin.

12/09/2005  
Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

May I ask why you conclude, "ransom redemption is obviously the most biblically based"?

To judge by the number of biblical passages you site, sacrifice also seems to be deeply rooted in the New Testament.

I think this is particularly so if 2(a) and 2(c) are viewed as related conceptions of atonement. Protecting believers from God's wrath is the flip side of reconciling humanity to God through forgiveness, is it not? 2(a) uses negative terms whereas 2(c) uses positive terms, but aren't they addressing the same root issue (God's wrath against sin / sinners)?
Q

12/14/2005  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

May I ask why you conclude, "ransom redemption is obviously the most biblically based"? To judge by the number of biblical passages you site, sacrifice also seems to be deeply rooted in the New Testament.

But the satisfaction and penal theories go beyond biblical understandings of sacrifice, emphasizing that Christ dies "in the place of" humanity (whether to satisfy demands of honor or justice). The biblical view focuses on sacrifice as propitiation ("food tribute" appeasing God; J), expiatory (blood as a spiritual cleansing agent; P), or both (H). (See Finlan's books on these.)

I think this is particularly so if 2(a) and 2(c) are viewed as related conceptions of atonement. Protecting believers from God's wrath is the flip side of reconciling humanity to God through forgiveness, is it not? 2(a) uses negative terms whereas 2(c) uses positive terms, but aren't they addressing the same root issue (God's wrath against sin / sinners)?

This boils down to semantics, but I'm inclined not to see passover sacrifice as atoning. Atoning sacrifice is atoning. Passover sacrifice protects. One reconciles, the other wards.

12/14/2005  
Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks for the explanations.
Q

12/15/2005  
Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

I have another question on the same topic, though it may not be possible for you to answer it. I wonder why St. Paul's "Adam christology" is not considered a theory of the atonement in its own right.

I've been re-reading the relevant chapter in James Dunn's "Christology in the Making". The idea (as I'm sure you know) is that Jesus recapitulated the history of the first human being, but with a different outcome. Whereas Adam was deceived and disobeyed God, Jesus was tested to the point of extremity — his suffering and execution — but remained obedient to God to the end. Sharing in the universal human experiences of suffering, temptation, and death, Jesus then experienced what Adam might have experienced: he was glorified via the resurrection.

I suppose this interpretation of Christ's sufferings falls within the general rubric of Ransom Redemption. But it doesn't involve deceit; in fact, it isn't addressed at the devil at all. Nor is it a matter of forensics, aimed at fulfilling the just penalty of the law.

I see it as I described it above: a recapitulation of history. The question is, wouldn't this qualify as a legitimate theory of atonement, distinct from the standard theories you have summarized?

You're clearly better educated than I am in these matters. If you're able to provide any illumination, I'd appreciate it.
Q

12/17/2005  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I wonder why St. Paul's "Adam christology" is not considered a theory of the atonement in its own right.

By first-century standards, atonement involves reconciliation between God humanity effected through sacrifice. Paul's Adam Christology points to a martyrdom theology. As you say, Jesus was tested to the point of extremity — his suffering and execution — but remained obedient to God to the end. Sharing in the universal human experiences of suffering, temptation, and death, Jesus then experienced what Adam might have experienced: he was glorified via the resurrection. This is martyrdom theology. Jesus dies for people's sins (Rom 5) as a model to be followed. Those who followed the Maccabean martyrs gained victory over a tyrant; those who died like the Greco-Roman philosophers gained victory over Fortune; so too dying with Christ gained victory over sin and death (Rom 6). David Seeley discusses this in The Noble Death.

Nothing, however, is said about Christ's death being a ransom price to a hostile power in the context of Adam Christology (Rom 5).

Hope this helps.

12/17/2005  
Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

With respect, I think your explanation misses the mark.

Jesus as the last Adam did not merely set an inspiring example. He was reversing the effects of the fall. No one, to my knowledge, made such a claim of the 2 Maccabees martyrs.

By first-century standards, atonement involves reconciliation between God humanity effected through sacrifice.

I am indeed talking about an event that effected a reconciliation between God and humankind. Someone had to recapitulate Adam's experience, including his experience of death, without succumbing to sin. That individual thereby paid the price necessary to reverse the effects of the fall. In my view, we are indeed in the realm of atonement here.

Nothing is said about Christ's death being a ransom price to a hostile power in the context of Adam Christology (Rom 5).

The "hostile power", by inference, would be God. All of humanity stood under the penalty visited, by God, upon Adam's descendants: i.e., bondage to sin leading to death.

That said, I'm not sure I want to describe Jesus' death as a ransom here. That's part of the reason I think this is a distinctive theory of the atonement, where the emphasis falls on the recapitulation of a primaeval, historic event — rather than the payment of a ransom as in the Ransom Redemption rubric.

It seems to me that this qualifies as a theory of atonement, and I don't see that it fits neatly into any of the standard categories. I'm asking myself whether it warrants a category unto itself.
Q

12/17/2005  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Jesus as the last Adam did not merely set an inspiring example. He was reversing the effects of the fall. No one, to my knowledge, made such a claim of the 2 Maccabees martyrs.

The point is that the mimetic pattern is the same for all the examples. The Maccabean martyrs also do more than set an inspiring example -- they defeat tyranny. The Greco-Roman philosophers accomplish a powerful goal too -- they overcome Fortune or Fate. Jesus defeats sin and death, reversing the effects of the fall. And that demands that believers participate in his death to be free of sin (Rom 6:6-7). The martyrs, in all cases, defeat a great evil and set an example to follow.

I realize, however, that I should have acknowledged other ideas present in the context of Rom 5. Believers are justified by Christ’s blood (which invokes both sacrifice and martyrdom), and, yes, reconciled (pointing to atonement) (5:9-10). So I agree that the atonement idea is present in Adam Christology. But the argument of Rom 5-8 relies most significantly on participatory/martyrdom categories.

The point of making these careful distinctions, as Stephen Finlan argues, is to appreciate that Paul's mingling of different metaphors is radical. Martyrdom, sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom redemption have come to refer to the same thing to Christians, but they meant different things originally.

12/17/2005  
Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks, Loren, that was more helpful to me. My apologies for overlooking your comment that martyr theology includes the overcoming of a great evil.

I know that Paul often mixes his metaphors. I agree that it's important to capture the nuances of each metaphor, and to distinguish each from the others.

Sometimes the New Testament writings remind me of an evangelical slogan: Jesus is the answer. Now what was the question?

That is, the New Testament authors keep shifting the way they characterize humankind's fundamental problem, depending in part on who the target audience is. But the solution is always the same: Jesus' death and resurrection.

As you point out, Protestants have generally held to the one explanation of atonement, Penal Substitution. And I don't think that view of the atonement speaks very well to our culture. It's biblical, but it isn't the only biblical (legitimate) model available to us.

Lately I've been in dialogue with several Jewish bloggers — not trying to convert anybody, just trying to promote mutual understanding. One blogger told me that Christianity believes in human sacrifice(!), which is utterly alien to Judaism. I responded by pointing to Adam christology, which strikes me as a good paradigm to use with a Jewish audience. It's interesting that you associate it with martyr theology, which was the other metaphor I used with my Jewish correspondents.

I'm still thinking my way through the paradigm. Thanks for your assistance.
Q

12/17/2005  

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