Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gospel, Reign, and Sacrifice

My series, "Believe the Good News," is designed primarily to use biblical definitions of "gospel" to inform our understandings of salvation in a way that we typically gloss. What I'm trying to do is move our understanding of salvation away from a perception that it is only interested in the eternal destiny of an individual. There is good news here, to be sure, but it is not the sole focus of the gospel, and in my view not even the primary one. In moving away from an individual horizon of interpretation, I am also trying to move toward a theological one. That is, salvation is primarily about what God is achieving--his final purposes for all of creation--in which we are invited to participate.

Our participation in God's emerging reign is transformative. It saves us, and saves us together with all creation. This transformation comes by participating in God's established reign, his way of ordering life which is not only about "God and me," but also about a new life with my neighbor. And what I am trying to show is that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the demonstration of this new human ordering. It is not simply a necessary act to assuage God's wrath and grant us a new status before God. It is a way of life, offered to us by God, manifest in the love of Jesus, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit (God's love poured into our hearts). We cannot participate in this way of life without being changed, and without everything around us changing as well.

The question then, pressed by some of you (trouble makers) in the comments section is what to do with the language of atonement and forgiveness.What is this business about the blood of Jesus continually covering our sins? How does that work? Can this be understood in ways other than penal substitutionary atonement?

The short answer is yes. Atonement can be understood in ways different than the way Charles Hodge and Billy Graham and Jimmy Allen, and most of us, have come to know it and express it. But what I don't want to do is replace one totalizing image with another. So, I'm not that interested in formulating another theory for you.

And I want to distinguish here between a picture and a theory. I'm all for pictures of salvation. These open up understanding, are an invitation to greater conceptual clairty, but in an open, playful way (play here in the Gadamerian sense). Theories are meant to limit meaning, to close it down, capture it. And sometimes this is necesary and helpful, especially when in dialogue with a local culture. But we should be clear that this move is always a reduction, a bracketing for the time being.

That said, I do want to say a few things about sacrifice in relation to my larger ambitions. Let's go back to my two horizons if interpretation. The first is individualistic. It is anthropocentric. It is about the eternal status of individuals. The qeustion is, "how does the blood of Jesus do away with my personal guilt?"

The second horizon is theological. What is God accomplishing in relation to the fullness of time? How is God bringing his order to things? The question related to sacrifice is "how does the blood of Jesus introduce a new order?" This is a very different question.

Let me sharpen the distinction. The first horizon is interested in the question of sins. How do I get forgiven for my personal sins? The second horizon is interested in the question of Sin as an organizing power. The question is "how does the death of Jesus overcome the world ordering power of Sin?" Both questions might be legitimate, but the second is by far the greater concern, biblically speaking. I want to push atonement to this second question.

Two more observations for today, and then I have to get some reading done. I think it is absolutely unbiblical to think of forgiveness of individual sins as something God can do only if someone is punished. His holiness is defined in the Old Testament precisely by his capacity to forgive when and where humans can't. We have made holiness about God's sense of justice and have understood justice in a retributive sense (this is wholly Western. We have a lot to learn here from our African brothers and sisters). But time and again in Scripture, God is seen as holy (read different or other) precisely in his ability to forgive. It is true to his nature. The larger issue is how to break the stranglehold that Sin has on human lives and structures the way it orders things.

I think forgiveness of sins is a mark of the new age inaugurated by the the coming of Jesus. It is simply the biproduct of God's establishing his good ordering, and it has to do with Jesus' very coming, not only with his death.. It is precisely the way that sin locks us into self-preoccupation that requires an act that proclaims his forgiving intent. We can only be for and with others truly if we are not self-possessed by guilt and shame. The death of Jesus is not some causative trigger that allows God to forgive. It might be the ultimate sign of his forgiving intentions, a part of the reign established in and with Jesus, but not the exclusive meaning of his death.

At that point, we bring in a larger discussion. How does the death of Jesus overcome Sin? How does it bring a new ordering related to Sin? And why would we refer to it as a sacrifice? Here I do want to refer our question to the work of Mark Heim. Heim, following the work of Rene Girard, shows how the myth of the scapegoat is being reinterpreted throughout the biblical witness. Scapegoating is one way of maintaining social order. It is a violent act that keeps a greater violence at bay. It is a way of maintaining peace at the expense of another, typically the weak. Heim argues that the death of Jesus is precisely a way of God's entering this story as a way to overcome it. Jesus' death is not the ultimate sacrifice, but our salvation from sacrifice. God establishes peace in another way, a way only made visible in the scapegoat death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection. This is a way of overcoming the way human principalities and powers would keep peace.

For a great summary of Heim, I would point you to Richard Beck's blog ( But for now notice that the death of Jesus here is an overcoming of Sin, a way of ordering our life together rooted in violence toward the weak. I want to pick this up at some point again, and talk about the blood of Jesus specifically. (It is primarily a positive image in Scripture, life giving, a transfusion if you will, rather than a shaming kind of thing). But for now (I know I say that a lot), I want us to see that the primary shift I'm making changes the way we talk about everything related to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

(If I believed in this kind of thing, I would say that I just had a providential moment. Lois Malcolm, a theologian here at Luther Seminary, just sat down next to me in the coffee shop where I do most of my studying. She is working on a book on atonement and we had a brief conversation about my project, and therefore, about this blog post. I asked her what she thought of Heim and said she liked the basic direction, but thinks there's a deeper insight to be gained that emphasizes precisely the blood of Jesus and its atoning significance, but not in a psa kind of way. She is sending me a manuscript for an article she just finished and I will summarize it for you when I get it).


Richard Beck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Beck said...

Trouble maker? Me?

Actually, I hope you know that I asked the question because it is the issue I struggle with the most. As I see it, people writing about atonement are doing one of two different things:

1.) Fracture: All language about atonement is partial, fractured, and resists systematizing. By making this move one doesn't have to reconcile the different pictures. Gaps between them remain.

2.) Narrative: Some try to explain atonement as a narrative with some dramatic moves (Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, Eschaton). The story isn't a theory per se, but it has a plot-driven theme. The issue with this approach is how one brings in the minor themes (e.g., blood) without compromising the main drama line (which leads to #1).

I only bring this up because it seems lots of people start doing #2 but, when pushed, admit #1: There isn't a coherent story here. Just lots of pictures, some harmonious and others discordant. Which is fine. It just means that the cross is the death of theology.

Mark Love said...


You're a good kind of trouble maker. I'm trying to steer a course between the two you suggest, at least I think. There are limits to any language that tries to capture something like soteriology. And there is undeniably a narrative dimension. This is why I like the word event. An event includes both a narrative and grammatical dimension. This is the way Ricoeur and other phenomenologists talk about stuff. But more vitally, it seems to capture the phenomenality of Scripture. Scripture privileges narrative, but does not sustain one account. And it uses a particular grammar (understood broadly) to picture the eventfulness of God's dealing with humankind. And the event is concrete. While it may not yield to a single interpretation, there is some structure here. It can be mimicked, enacted or reenacted, which is the first event of interpretation.

I appreciate your taking it seriously and pushing on it.

Happy thanksgiving.


Cheryl Russell said...

"We have made holiness about God's sense of justice and have understood justice in a retributive sense.."

More good stuff. We had a great discussion about this during our Life Group last night. It was a tough sell for some. Part of what freaks people out about this is that we are doing away with their "salvation checklists."

Mark Love said...

You're right, Cheryl. Nothing that some good Bible reading won't fix. It's the word "good" though that is problematic.


Cheryl Russell said...

So, true. "You can have my salvation checklist, when you pry it out of my cold, dead hand!" A joke, but seriously demonstrates how difficult it is for some good people to get rid of some bad theology. I think you should use the above quote for a future class!

Aun said...

I have moved to theological understanding about salvation.