Richard Rohr on Atonement

Two generations ago, the landmark theologian in our tradition (Nazarene), H. Orton Wiley, wrote that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was inconsistent with Wesleyan (Nazarene) theological commitments, and therefore could not be our atonement theory. Franciscan priest and thinker Richard Rohr is also concerned that penal substitution has led western Christianity down very negative pathways. He writes,

“For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033– 1109] and has often been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written”). Scotus agreed with neither of these readings. He was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, blood sacrifice, or necessary satisfaction, but by the cosmic hymns of Colossians and Ephesians. If Scotus’s understanding of the “how” and meaning of redemption (his “atonement theory”) had been taught, we would have had a much more positive understanding of Jesus, and even more of God the Father. Christian people have paid a huge price for what theologians after Anselm called “substitutionary atonement theory”: the idea that, before God could love his creation, God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for a sin-drenched humanity. Please think about the impossible, shackled, and even petty God that such a theory implies and presents.  Christ is not the first idea in the mind of God, as Scotus taught, but a mere problem solver after the sad fact of our radical unworthiness….

We have had enough trouble helping people to love, trust, and like God to begin with, without creating even further obstacles. Except for striking fear in the hearts of those we sought to convert, substitutionary atonement theories did not help our evangelization of the world. It made Christianity seem mercantile and mythological to many sincere people. The Eternal God was presented as driving a very hard bargain, as though he were just like many people we don’t like. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and forgive his own children— a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive father were already far too programmed to believe….

Scotus, however, insisted on the absolute and perfect freedom of God to love and forgive as God chooses, which is the core meaning of grace. Such a God could not be bound by some supposedly offended justice. For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could not be a mere reaction to human sinfulness, but in fact the exact, free, and proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul says in Ephesians (1: 4). Sin or problems could not be the motive for divine incarnation, but only perfect love! The Christ Mystery was the very blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1: 1)….

It is no wonder that Christianity did not produce more mystics and saints over the centuries. Unconsciously, and often consciously, many people did not trust or even like this Father God, much less want to be in union with him. He had to be paid in blood to love us and to care for his own creation, which seems rather petty and punitive, and we ended up with both an incoherent message and universe. Paul told us that “love takes no offense” (1 Corinthians 13: 5), but apparently God was the big exception to this rule. Jesus tells us to love unconditionally, but God apparently does not. This just will not work for the soul or mature spirituality. Basically when you lose the understanding of God’s perfect and absolute freedom and eagerness to love, which Scotus insisted on, humanity is relegated to the world of counting! Everything has to be measured, accounted for, doled out, earned, and paid back. That is the effect on the psyche of any notion of heroic sacrifice or necessary atonement. 9 It is also why Jesus said Temple religion had to go, including all of its attempts at the “buying and selling” of divine favor (John 2: 13– 22). In that scenario, God has to be placated and defused; and reparation has to be paid to a moody, angry, and very distant deity. This is no longer the message Jesus came to bring.

This wrongheaded worldview has tragically influenced much of our entire spirituality for the last millennium, and is still implied in most of the Catholic Eucharistic prayers. It gave lay Catholics and most clergy an impossible and utterly false notion of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness— which are, in fact, at the heart of our message. The best short summary I can give of how Scotus tried to change the equation is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Christ was Plan A for Scotus, the hologram of the whole, the Alpha— and therefore also the Omega— Point of cosmic history.”

Rohr, Richard (2014-07-27). Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (pp. 183-187). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.

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The NT doesn’t support our Western doctrine of Original Sin

In Luke 5:31-32 (HCSB) – Jesus says “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It’s very clear here that Jesus considered some people in his generation to be in right standing with God already, before the atonement on the cross. The Book of Hebrews lists many, many heroes of faith who were righteous long before Jesus came. But the way most of us understand the idea of original sin is that everybody on the planet has some sort of cosmic evilness in them that makes God furious and the only way to get out of an eternity of hell is to be lucky enough to hear about Jesus and say the sinner’s prayer.  So, the point of Jesus’ coming is this: everyone in the world is born with a condition God is furious at, so he is sending everyone in the world to hell, (like punishing a kid for having Down’s Syndrome) and Jesus comes as the medicine so you can go to heaven.

It’s like we’ve changed stories. Because you would never read the Old Testament cover to cover and come away with that idea: that the point of the story is that God is sending everyone to hell due to original sin, unless they confess the Messiah, whereupon the can go to heaven.  You would never even remotely come away with that idea from reading the Old Testament. The storyline in the Old Testament is that Yahweh created the world and it is being despoiled by violence and idolatry and evil and God wants people to live rightly in His world. So it’s like we’ve switched storylines in between the Testaments.

So the question is, is there a change of story, or are we mis-reading our New Testaments? Logically, Jesus the Messiah came to solve the problem presented in the Old Testament: to put God’s world right. Much Protestant theology, however, acts as if Jesus came to solve the problem OF the Old Testament: as if the problem is the way people related to God in the Old Testament (the Law) which now has to be remedied (by grace).

While grace and the atonement are certainly central realities in the New Testament, I think we’ve gotten mixed up about the storyline. I will say it again: the Old Testament never remotely suggests that the central story of the world is that all humanity is sinful and going to hell and can only go to heaven if they accept the Messiah. No, the Messiah is coming to set the world right, including the people in it. This is a story about this world, not an insurance policy for lucky insiders regarding the afterlife.

Theological Humility

I want theological humility, alongside appropriate humility in every other area of life. It goes without saying that portions of my theology are of course completely wrong – I just don’t know which portions! As Donald Miller remarked long ago, me understanding God is like an ant understanding me.

Thankfully God has revealed Himself through Scripture, nature and, preeminently, the Son, in ways  that we can understand. But the Christian experience of interpreting the Scriptures the last 20 centuries is diverse and multi-flavored. For any one of our traditions to take a stand and say “we are the only people who have this correct. Line up with our theology or you aren’t even Christian” is not only silly, but is also lacking severely in humility. Seriously? The odds that your particular branch of the Christian family tree nailed it, and everyone else is wrong, are hard to calculate, but let’s just say they are extremely low. And in any event, as I’ve remarked before, this boils salvation down to knowing all the answers on a theology test, and not our personal response to Jesus.

I think we all need (and perhaps especially some branches of the family that come to mind), a good, strong, healthy dose of humility about our theology. I would much rather us talk, learn from one another, learn from one another’s theology, work together and endeavor to live out the Gospel of the Kingdom better and better, instead of casting aspersions over the airwaves and in print, declaring that this or that group are no longer Christians, when in reality they hold to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds – it’s just that they don’t sign on to your church’s particular and favorite doctrines.

Humility. Priceless.

Do we need some new work on our doctrine of sin?

Western Christianity inherited a very strong doctrine of ‘Original Sin’ from Augustine. Eastern Orthodox Christianity has never been convinced that Augustine actually understood what Paul’s Greek meant on that subject. Our doctrine of Original Sin is so strong that some branches of Western Protestantism consider sin stronger than God’s transforming power in this life – they don’t believe a Christian can go even an hour without sinning in one way or another. I grew up with such an implicitly strong doctrine of sin that I was surprised as a young person whenever someone who wasn’t a Christian even did anything that was commendable or right. The West’s current doctrine of sin raises a host of questions theologically, ethically, and anthropologically. Many traditional cultures in the world do not conclude that people are intrinsically bad from the get go. If I understand them, neither Islam nor Judaism has a conception of Original Sin, nor an anthropology involving sin anything like what Augustine thought Paul was saying. Explaining why people do bad things required of these religions no doctrine like Augustine’s. To many people today, the idea that I am on the hook for a condition I was born with is logically,  theologically and morally repugnant, and leads to questions about the goodness of the Christian God in general.

Which brings up the question – Is it time we did some additional work on our doctrine of sin, conversed with our Jewish friends and Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters, and go back to the drawing board in examining what the Scriptures actually say about this? Probably.

Your theology is in its 10th revision

Or fourteenth. Or twentieth.

Some people, when they hear talk of new theology or new work in theology, start talking as if their own theology is the original, Biblical theology and all new work in theology is illegitimate. But no matter what brand of Christian theology you hold to, it’s been through many revisions. Since the earliest centuries Christians have worked, tweaked, revised, changed their theologies as their understanding of God and the Scriptures developed. For example, Calvin (16th century) used and modified Anselm’s ideas (11th century). Anselm had used and changed Augustine’s theology (5th century). Augustine was deeply influenced by many Greek philosophers (400 BC ff) and the theology of the Council of Nicea (325 AD). Of course there were hundreds of other philosophers and theologians influencing Calvin and the Reformers, not just the ones mentioned. This is the way Christian doctrine has developed over 20 centuries. In fact, Christian theology has also been influenced by Muslim and Jewish theologians across the Middle Ages (Averroes, Avicenna, Maimonides, etc). If this last fact bothers you, remember that Paul said people figure out things about God even aside from the Revelation in Jesus (Romans 1: 18ff).

No, no, some people insist, but I just hold to the Biblical theology – you know, what they believed in Jesus’ day. Really?  Within Second Temple Judaism of Jesus’ day, which theology do you mean? The Zealots’ theology, or the Saduccees’? The theology Rabbi Gamaliel  held, Hillel or Shammai? The separatist theology of Qumran or the Hellenized theology of Pharisees like Paul, who quoted Greek poets and philosophers? It’s clear that most New Testament Jewish theologies had been majorly influenced by Greek thought, and before that Jewish theology picked up many ideas from the Persians. The same thing was going on in New Testament times. A variety of theologies abounded, and they had been modified and revised as time went on.

So when Christians continue the on-going work of theology (“words about God”), we are simply doing what Christians, Jews and Muslims have done for our entire history. Theology didn’t start or end with Calvin or whoever your favorite might be. What people think of as “I hold to a simple biblical theology” is really the culmination of thousands of years of tweaking, revising and modifying. It isn’t going to end this side of the Age to Come. It’s ok. We are still learning, stretching, growing, being taught by God’s Spirit who makes the written words come alive in us.

Next time: what it’s like to be on your way to a new theology