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Atonement
  • SimonSimon September 2011
    Right I think I will try and kick things off on our new forum -

    I have previously characterised the common penal substitution view of the atonement - as favoured by many evangelicals - as:

    "God sacrificing himself to himself to allow himself to change the rules that he himself made".

    When I made this comment on the CiS email list the main complaint people had was that I was not taking the doctrine of the trinity seriously enough. Thing is I worry that theologians have got themselves tied up in too many knots about the trinity to the point that they seldom clarify anything. My simplistic "scientists" view is that "God the Father" is the label we give to God's creator/sustainer role, "God the son" is the label we give to his human incarnation in Jesus, and "God the spirit" is the name we give to his moving within people and the church - perhaps God's immanent aspect.

    Given this understanding of the trinity, I maintain that penal substitution makes no sense as a theology of atonement.

    Simon

  • AnthonySmithAnthonySmith October 2011
    But if there is no real (ontological) distinction between the persons of the Trinity, which is what you seem to be suggesting, then what does "the Father loves the Son" mean?
  • SimonSimon October 2011
    If God is really so much bigger than we can really grasp, then it is not surprising that there are certain issues that Christians have either got very confused about, or found contradictory explanations to; one of these issues is atonement (hence this discussion).

    I tend to view the bible as the first Christians attempts to thrash out a theology and understanding of God. As such I am not at all worried about seemingly confusing NT passages because I think the first Christians were themselves quite confused about the new revelation of God passed through Jesus. This isn't to say that today we are any less confused, but we do have the benefit of 2000 years more thinking on various issues.

    So moving back to the trinity and the verse you quoted, it may well be that the author thought of the trinity as distinct persons, however my argument would be that this is wrong - the trinity is far closer than three separate persons. I am reminded of a large banner outside a Sikh temple here in Southampton that states "God is one". This is because many people from other religions do not think Christians are proper monotheists precisely because of this emphasis on different persons of the trinity.
  • Geoff October 2011
    Simon,
    What you have expressed seems to be the view described as 'modalism' or Sabellianism, where the modes or aspects of God are perceived by the believer rather than persons. This belief was not eventually accepted by the early Church.

    Various people like Michael Servetus, Swedenborg and Barth have been accused of holding such ideas so you are in good/bad company.

    Perhaps a better understanding of what you are trying to say is Perichoresis. I think Wikipaedia is right when it describes perichoresis as: "Such is the fellowship in the Godhead that the Father and the Son not only embrace each other, but they also enter into each other, permeate each other, and dwell in each other. One in being, they are also always one in the intimacy of their friendship."
  • SimonSimon October 2011
    Hi Geoff,

    One fun thing with theology is that from one perspective everything has already been thought of - it just takes someone with historical knowledge to identify what's being talked about. Indeed I am always slightly amused by how many Christians (myself included) think that we are doing things "for the first time" - perhaps as a result of the free-market nature of evangelicalism? However, despite this, human thought does move on, and we find ourselves thinking in a context today that is never quite the same as yesterday.

    Recently I picked up Alister McGrath's 2009 book "Heresy". I am quite interested in the subject as it seems to me that as Christianity (especially evangelicalism) has embraced modern/post-modern ways of doing things, a new freedom has opened up to interpret and even create Christian doctrine based on new scientific and philosophical ideas, rather than remain rooted in historical church authority. I think we may be lucky enough to live in a time when there is a genuine opportunity to cast off historical shackles and start taking theology into new areas informed by other areas of knowledge without the worry of being branded a 'heretic' (and burned at the stake). Indeed I would even go so far as to suggest that theologians are only really good for reminding us of history, whilst the best contemporary theology is done by people from other disciplines.
  • SimonSimon March 2012
    And an almighty bump on this thread as I think it is relevant to our other discussion (what is the root of creationists' objection to evolution)!
  • GavinM March 2012
    Simon, can you outline the five (I think?) theories of atonement that you were mentioning in the other thread?
  • SimonSimon March 2012
    I wrote much of the wikipedia article a few years back - 

  • jw_11_02 May 2012
    Hi Simon,

    Just looking over some of these threads I'm curious as to what your essential theology entails? I can't help feeling that any sort of post-modern, relativistic approach to Christianity is essentially both worthless and incoherent; worthless in the sense that if it's just a form of subjective, customised deism supplemented with a few historical traditions, then you can't really expect it to provide any objective form of value. On the other hand i think it's incoherent since Christianity appears to unambiguously present itself as an objective truth which we must either reject or affirm. It presents a fully comprehensive worldview in which the universe was brought about by an eternal God who created humans as the pinnacle of his creation; although through the exercise of their free will, they rebelled against him, and thus the problem of sin came into being. God then chose a particular people (the Jews), as a means of carrying out his plan of salvation, through whom came Jesus, so as to bring this plan into ultimate fulfillment, offering salvation to all. Now I think there are a number of difficulties entailed in the post-modern approach. I find when reading the new testament, that page after page we're confronted with a very radical notion, rooted in the writers' belief in an objective truth. I don't see any of  this overly fluffy Jesus figure which seems so common; from the stance of scripture at least, he demands an all or nothing response, and this is made abundantly clear throughout. Now we can suppose other alternatives, perhaps this isn't an accurate picture of the historical Jesus, maybe his words were twisted by his over-zealous devotees who arbitrarily attributed him with mystical, divine characteristics and misrepresented him by positing him with a magnified sense of authority and so on. I disagree with this on historical grounds, but let's suppose for now this is the case. How then can this be of any truth at all? If God really is a personal, sovereign God as the Bible describes, then surely he'd be able to oversee that this whole salvation operation was properly carried out and understood by those who witnessed it, and subsequently handed down correctly to the likes of ourselves. It just doesn't follow that we can pick or chose what we like from it; granted there's room for discussion on interpretation in areas like creation and in theological topics such as the atonement. On the whole however, I think there are no grounds for adopting a customised version of Christianity based on our own preferences, t be found in the content of the NT. It doesn't make sense to accept certain doctrines without assuming the general truth of the whole theological package.
    I'd like to say that in writing this, I don't want to appear dogmatic or intolerant, and this isn't supposed to be a personal attack. I couldn't however, fail to question what exactly it is that you do believe (mainly since you seem to be a prominent voice within this community, and your views don't seem to adhere to the statement of faith - holding to the belief in a triune God, the Bible as ultimate authority, and hope in salvation through Jesus alone). Again I want to stress this isn't intended as a personal attack, but I raise the issue sincerely, let me know what you think!

    Thanks,
    Jamie
  • SimonSimon May 2012
    Hi Jamie,

    A few things in your post to respond to, but let me start of with some epistemology as that is often the area that causes clashes with evangelicals who may be more conservative than I am.

    There is a great deal of confusion over the words "objective" and "subjective". Indeed quite often they are thrown around willy nilly especially by conservative evangelicals who think they know what they mean but, on a bit of pressing, seem to actually have a bit of an incoherent understanding of these concepts.

    I have no particular problem with the existence of "objective" truth if it is defined as "that which God knows". As such I don't have a problem with the claim that I (or someone else) may know something that is "objective truth". Where I do think a problem occurs is in identifying exactly which of my beliefs are "objective" and which are not. All knowledge held by man is necessarily subjective because it is viewed from our own subjective experience as we are unable to transcend ourselves. To put it another way (and borrow a quote from my cheeky 13 year old self) "yes the world does revolve around me because everything that happens occurs from my perspective!" As such we view EVERYTHING - experiences, teaching, studying, the claims in the bible - through a pair of lenses that are unique to us. As a result I think we have to be very careful in declaring what is or isn't "objective" truth - we have to be humble about our truth claims.

    Now this is not to say that "there is no truth", rather that instead of truth being black or white, it is more a matter of probabilities. So if I come across some very good arguments for a claim that shows how it fits the normal criteria of being correspondent, coherent, consistent and pragmatic, I will assign it a high probability and, as a shorthand, refer to the claim as "true". Indeed this is how I view most of the claims of Christianity. I will happily refer to them as true, but what I won't do is refer to them as "objectively true" or claim "100% certainty". To do this is to misunderstand how knowledge works.

    Post-modernity is just an acceptance of this position of humility when it comes to truth claims. It is an acknowledgement of our own fallibility and, if anything, causes us to rely even more on God especially in situations that might not fit our previous prejudices.
  • jw_11_02 June 2012
    Hi Simon,

    Thanks for your comments. I couldn't however, help noticing what seems to be a common double standard asserted by the proponents of post-modernism. Let's take your quote: 'All knowledge held by man is necessarily subjective because it is viewed
    from our own subjective experience as we are unable to transcend
    ourselves' The statement 'all knowledge held by man is necessarily subjective' is a self-contradiction in terms, since if the statement is true then it must be objective, however that is the very thing you are trying to deny in making the statement. Aside from that i think you may have misunderstood how i perceive the term 'objective'; when referring to God's revelation in the bible I suggested that it presents itself to us 'objectively', meaning it makes claims to truth which if they are true, they are true regardless of human agreement on the issue. For example the recurring biblical claim that there is a maximal being who transcends time and matter, is something unverifiable to humans objectively; although modern cosmology seems to compliment the claim, it cannot be asserted objectively, it must be held to some degree subjectively, yet it is making an objective statement in that sense that if it is true it is true regardless of human agreement on it. This was not really the issue I was trying to draw on, more i was focusing on the logical complications which arise when you (not you specifically!) affirm one truth claim, but deny another relating to it, essentially I'm referring loosely to the law of non-contradiction. For example, if you accept that scripture is essentially authored by God, then sure there is room for leniency in interpretation - some areas more than others depending on their genre, historical circumstances etc. But it would be essentially problematic to affirm the divine authorship of the bible and then deny the historicity of the resurrection since so much of it is based on the affirmation of the resurrection. Essentially what I'm getting at with 'objectivity' is not that if we are Christians, we can thus understand every segment of scriptural revelation objectively, more in affirming certain 'objective' (not that we know them objectively but if they are true, they are so regardless of our agreement of their truth) claims relating to Christianity, logic obliges us to accept others.

    I totally agree with your thoughts on humility, and again I agree we need to very careful not to voice ourselves dogmatically, although I do still truth can be known and we should strive to seek it with caution and humility.

    Cheers,
    Jamie
  • SimonSimon June 2012
    Hi again Jamie,

    You wrote: The statement 'all knowledge held by man is necessarily subjective' is a self-contradiction in terms, since if the statement is true then it must be objective, however that is the very thing you are trying to deny in making the statement. which I think is a rehash of the old "if you say there is no such thing as truth then you are saying it is true that there is no such thing as truth".

    My theory of truth is not at all troubled by this because, by appealing to probabilities, I am essentially saying "it is probable that all truth is probable". Or, to put it another way, "it is probable that all knowledge held by man is subjective", a statement which I think completely avoids the criticism you were trying to make because I am not claiming objectivity - just high levels of probability.

    I am having problems following the logic of the rest of your post. For instance I don't think I have anywhere "denied the historicity of the resurrection", however despite this, I still think it is possible to claim divine authorship of the bible and deny the historicity of the resurrection. Yes a lot of the bible is based around the resurrection, however the "mythological truth" conveyed through the story is not at all limited by the events not having a historical occurrence (although let me again specify that I DO believe in the historicity of the resurrection). So if the divine purpose was to teach the principle of sacrificial love, atonement, sanctification etc. the fact the story exists is as good as the story actually happening. Indeed from a theological perspective I think that an obsession with "proving" the historicity of Christ is a distraction from far more useful expressions of Christian love. I appreciate this view is anathema to the modern conservative Evangelical obsessed with a penal substitution view of the atonement, which is a good reason why I don't personally hold the position, but I am keen to point out that the position itself is not as entirely unreasonable as many Evangelicals make out.

    Essentially what I'm getting at with 'objectivity' is not that if we are Christians, we can thus understand every segment of scriptural revelation objectively, more in affirming certain 'objective' (not that we know them objectively but if they are true, they are so regardless of our agreement of their truth) claims relating to Christianity, logic obliges us to accept others. 

    You see I'm not trying to claim any "objectivity", just probability. So I probably am obliged to accept some "truths" based on other "truths" I already accept, but it is all a matter of subjective probabilities - objectivity doesn't come into it at all!



  • jw_11_02 June 2012
    Hi again Simon,

    I basically agree with how you describe the interplay of subjectivity and probabilities - I was just trying to establish that whenever we make a statement of 'truth', even if we know it may not be true, we are always approaching the subject presuming that truth as a category does exist and thus we can at least grasp some of this even if epistemology limits us to 'high probabilities'.

    Regarding the issue of the historicity of the resurrection, I was by no means implying that you yourself do not hold to its truth, I was just using it as a particular example of a position which someone may chose to hold, which incidentally I would see as being difficult to maintain if the same person was to affirm the divine authorship of the Bible.

    Admittedly this does perhaps come across a little ambiguous and unhelpful, as the issue here is always a case of 'where to draw the line?' As you pointed out there are some who do endeavour to reconcile both views and who am i to stop them? Likewise there are some who would say that you cannot affirm the authority of the Bible whilst believing in evolution, or that the Earth is more than 10,000 years old, although I don't necessarily agree with this.

    So in a sense we could go round in circles on this issue and get nowhere. I guess i originally brought up this whole topic in response to one of your earlier posts which advocated the influence of post-modernism on Christian doctrine, which personally I find a little troubling since the Christian claim is one of objectivity, (I'll reiterate to avoid confusion: Again I'm referring to objectivity by its definition of 'that which exists apart from human knowledge'  - not that we may know of it or of any aspect of it purely 'objectively') and as such we should aim to understand it as objectively as we can allow ourselves to. Moreover it has been revealed historically, and post-modernism and good historiography don't sit well together. Anyway I could go on but I think I'll stop there; I think there's too much critical commenting on this forum and not enough constructive, I think we'd all get on better to try and accept our differences and learn from each other rather than criticize each others' views because of our differences. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!



  • SimonSimon June 2012
    Hi Jamie - thanks for your thoughts - its nice to finish off pretty much agreeing with someone (although I still have quibbles about the confusion between "post-modernity" (which I think is generally OK) and extreme "truth relativism" (which I think is something else entirely and not OK))!