Thursday, January 19, 2012

Communities and Atonement

Theology shapes society. The habits of a family in Kilarney depend on what is written about God in Duke University. The work of theology has social consequences; and not only liberation theology or practical theology, but the kind of theology that at first blush seems utterly unrelated to the real world.

Perhaps in our secular society we think theology has lost this kind of power, but as James Beckford points out, "the deregulation of religion is one of the hidden ironies of secularization". By releasing religion from state control and removing it to the margins of society, secularization has put the Christian church in the place from which it originally turned the world upside-down. Theology has as much power as ever to effect not only societal change, but the emergence of communities that are genuine alternatives to the dominant reality.

Though it forms an aside in an incredibly bulky chapter, Charles Taylor puts forward an argument that the theology of the Reformation -- specifically, its theology of the atonement -- gave rise to the "humanist hostility to mystery", and played "an important role in the later rise of unbelief". If the irony of secularization is that it empowers counter-narratives, or re-formations in society, the irony of the Reformation is that it empowered the secularization of society. If nobody learns from history, then perhaps this is a sort of back-and-forth that will play out till kingdom come.

And what was it about this particular theology of atonement that caused it to have such dramatic social effects? It led to "horrifying conclusions" such as the doctrine of the damnation of most humans, or the doctrine of double predestination. 

What is the name of this horrifying theology of the atonement?

The juridical-penal model, or the penal-substitutionary model.

If Charles Taylor's brief assessment is close to the truth, then the hegemony that this model still enjoys signifies a failure of theology in its task of speaking correctly of God. The ones who speak of God to congregations in cities and towns and villages must learn to articulate the mystery of human sin and God's grace using language that would not be out of place in the story of the prodigal son.

Perhaps the de-throning of the juridical-penal model of atonement is necessary if Christian communities are ever to be truly alternative in a world that knows well the value of channelling violence onto some for the sake of the protection of the many. Or to put it another way, perhaps we can never have nonviolent communities without a nonviolent atonement.


  1. I must be missing something basic here... but there is very little about the cross that suggests a non-violent atonement.?

    Perhaps we can say that christ took the violence on himself so that we don't have to put it on others?

    I wouldnt be interested in getting rid of the Juridical-penal model for the sake of christian community. But if i were shown it was wrong- well that would be a different thing.

  2. There is a book called the Nonviolent Atonement, whose argument I read in a condensed form in a book called Atonement and Violence. I remember there being significant flaws, but I definitely think there is much further discussion needed on the topic of the atonement and violence.

    The cross is certainly violent to the extent that it displays the violence of Rome, the violence of powers and principalities. But what a nonviolent atonement wants to say is that we are not saved by the violence of humanity (or divinity), but by the nonviolence of the triune God.

    Thomas Finger has this to say:

    "It is the powers, ranged over against God, who inflict the death penalty although Jesus was innocent. God does not inflict such a penalty, save in the indirect sense of allowing it to be exacted, without intervening violently to prevent it, because this was an inevitable consequence of their mission of self-sacrificing love.
    Therefore, it was unjust for Jesus to pay a penalty he did not deserve; yet not because God demands such penalties – but because the powers of evil do."

    This is undoubtedly further evidence of my cheaply bought theological anabaptism, but I do think the ethical dimension of atonement "theory" has been criminally ignored, and that the juridical-penal model holds a theological-ethical power that should be seriously questioned.

  3. hmmm. I understand questioning the ethics that result from holding the juridical-penal model and i look forward to seeing what the likes of yourself and zoom bring to the table in years to come.
    As for holding that God's role at the cross was only "allowing it" i have yet to be convinced of.
    What does your readings tell about the what happens in hell? Is that not a violent place?

  4. "Allowing it" is a bit weak all right. Jesus doesn't so much allow the cross to happen to him as he does "move towards it and provoke it", in the words of Yoder. We can perhaps speak of the triune God's atoning work with this kind of active language.

    I do think that vengeance is God's and He will repay it, but that future tense that Paul uses in Romans 12 should probably have a bearing on how we understand the cross.