Monday, January 09, 2006

At-One-Ment Considered...


One of the next classes I'll be taking, coming up in a week, will be "Atonement". Atonement is one of our most central doctrines of the faith. At the center of the Atonement is the question: Why did Jesus have to die and what does that death mean? The theory of atonement that most Christians are familiar with is the idea of "Substitutionary Atonement" pioneered by Anselm of Canterbury and continued to be adapted and popularized by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. But there are actually various other valid theories of atonement. As I move through this class and begin to ponder the idea of Jesus' death and what it means to us as Christians (and the world) I plan to invite anyone interested into the conversation. Hopefully this will be stimulating and engaging. I think it'll be very appropriate as we move closer to the season of Lent. So as we approach the season I will probably step it up a notch.

Theologian, John Milbank, in pondering the death of Jesus and the doctrine of the atonement puts it like this:
"WHY DID JESUS DIE? The gospels present us with a very confusing and complex account. Jesus deliberately returned to Jerusalem although he seems to have known that this was to court danger. He was `betrayed' by one of his disciples, although it is unclear why this betrayal was necessary, nor in what it consisted. After his betrayal and seizure, he was, according to the synoptic accounts, arraigned before the Sanhedrin, who accused him of denouncing the temple, of disregarding the law and of claiming to be the Son of God. Then, however, the high priest and elders handed Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman governor, claiming that he was a rebel who had set himself up as a king of the Jews against Caesar. Pilate subjected Jesus to enigmatic and ironic questioning, and according to St. Luke's gospel, in turn handed him over to Herod, the Greek king of Judea and Roman puppet. Herod could find him guilty of nothing and returned him to Pilate (Luke 23).

In an obscure decision, Pilate is then presented as having at once condemned Jesus to death in deference to the crowd's wish to release Barrabas rather than Jesus, and at the same time as having 'handed Jesus over' to the Jerusalem mob to do what they liked with him: ". . . but Jesus he delivered up to their will. And as they led him away they seized on Simon of Cyrene . . . " (Luke 23: 25-26) Yet this 'doing what they like' took the form of appropriating the Roman judicial punishment of crucifixion: 'Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him." (John 19:6) In Matthew's gospel, Pilate elaborately washes his hands before the crowd and declares "I am innocent of this man's blood: see to it yourselves" before 'delivering' Jesus to be crucified (Matthew: 27:26) Even Mark's gospel says, ambiguously, that "Pilate, wishing to satisfy the mob . . . . delivered him to be crucified" (Mark 15:15). Comparison with Matthew's version plausibly suggests that this means indeed that Pilate 'handed over' Jesus to the mob. Given this near unanimity, there is really no clear reason, as we shall further see below, to assume that the gospel writers merely invented the role of the crowd in order to exonerate the Romans. It is true that in Mark (15:16) it is the soldiers not the crowd who lead Jesus away, but this does not render impossible a joint mob-military action, as Mark's 'deliver' may indicate. By now we should know that Mark's brevity is no necessary sign of greater historicity, and is as literary a matter as the other's gospel's relative prolixity.

Who then really killed Jesus and why? And why did Jesus submit to this? The only consistent thread in these narratives is that Christ was constantly handed over, or abandoned to another party. Judas betrayed his presence; the disciples deserted him; the Sanhedrin gave him up to Pilate, Pilate in turn to Herod, Herod back to Pilate; Pilate again to the mob who finally gave him over to a Roman execution, which somehow, improperly, they co-opted. Even in his death, Jesus was still being handed back and forth, as if no one actually killed him, but he died from neglect and lack of his own living-space."

5 comments:

Zoomdaddy said...

Let's not forget the quote, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani." Being handed over by the Father Himself. Utter abandonment.

Thunder Jones said...

You ought to read Kathryn Tanner. I see a beer-filled discussion coming on...

St.Phransus said...

i'll have to check her out. and yes, i hear a night of rowdy theological banter along with good ale in our near future.

gmw said...

a fantastic book on the atonement is Joel Green and Mark Baker's "Recovering the Scandal of the Cross" from IVP. they bring the NT to bear on the historical theories and explanations.

i think i'm pretty much with CS Lewis who said that the NT tells us that Christ died for us and that somehow that sacrificial death solves the problem of sin and brings us back to God--and that its more important to believe that it "works" than it is to believe in an explanation of how it "works".

there was a really good issue of the UM Circuit Rider that Joel Green edited a year or two ago with some excellent articles on cross and atonement.

me, i'm a Christus Victor guy myself.

Dale said...

Jonathan,

This whole issue of what was going on in all this "handing over" and "washing the hands" and "the mob" is something that fascinates me, not least of all the role of the crucifixion in the salvation story (I've been reading Bell's book -- I should finsih that up this weekend -- the "Liberation Theology at the End of History" one). I've had, for a while now, serious doubts about how well the "Christ died for our sins" as an absolution; Bell picks this up in his book as he talks about forgiveness. Anyway, good post.

Dale