Jesus and the Cross

Jesus and the Cross

My post WHY THE CROSS? is my most read post with relatively the least number of comments,  making me somewhat uneasy on my message  which is a bit controversial  – starting off as it does with a heretical questioning of the meaning of the statement “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” and my reflections on what I think it means. 

I’ve had concerns whether I was propounding a heretical view which few wished to comment on,  or maybe reader just moved on leaving me to my idiosyncratic beliefs without engaging in dialogue on this one. 🤔

I was thus happy to read Richard Rohr’s reflection on “Jesus and the Cross – Substitutionary Atonement”  which threw some light on my seemingly heretical thinking.  Rohr, a reputed Jesuit priest lucidly answers the questions I had :

For most of church history, no single consensus prevailed on what Christians mean when we say, “Jesus died for our sins.” But in recent centuries, one theory did become mainstream. It is often referred to as the “penal substitutionary atonement theory,” especially once it was further developed during the Reformation. [1] Substitutionary atonement is the theory that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of humans, thus satisfying the “demands of justice” so that God could forgive our sins.

and takes up the subject with

both excitement and trepidation because I know that substitutionary atonement is central to many Christians’ faith. But the questions of why Jesus died and what is the meaning and message of his death have dominated the Christian narrative, often much more than his life and teaching. As some have said, if this theory is true, all we needed were the last three days or even three hours of Jesus’ life. In my opinion, this interpretation has kept us from a deep and truly transformative understanding of both Jesus and Christ.

Read Richard Rohr’s  full reflection on Jesus and the Cross, the theology of substitutionary atonement (direct link) or post copied below.   He speaks with authority of knowledge and wisdom and his reflections on his website Center for Action and Contemplation – are wonderful spiritual insights.

I am sure you will find plenty to reflect on as we enter into this holiest of weeks.

May you be blessed with the peace and love of Christ.

Image:  Various sources on the internet.  No clear copyright owner. No intention to violate copyright laws.

Jesus and the Cross

Substitutionary Atonement
Sunday, February 3, 2019

For most of church history, no single consensus prevailed on what Christians mean when we say, “Jesus died for our sins.” But in recent centuries, one theory did become mainstream. It is often referred to as the “penal substitutionary atonement theory,” especially once it was further developed during the Reformation. [1] Substitutionary atonement is the theory that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of humans, thus satisfying the “demands of justice” so that God could forgive our sins.

This theory of atonement ultimately relies on another commonly accepted notion—the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, which, we were told, taints all human beings. But much like original sin (a concept not found in the Bible but developed by Augustine in the fifth century), most Christians have never been told how recent and regional this explanation is or that it relies upon a retributive notion of justice. Nor are they told that it was honest enough to call itself a “theory,” even though some groups take it as long-standing dogma.

Unfortunately, this theory has held captive our vision of Jesus, making our view very limited and punitive. The commonly accepted atonement theory led to some serious misunderstandings of Jesus’ role and Christ’s eternal purpose, reaffirmed our narrow notion of retributive justice, and legitimated a notion of “good and necessary violence.” It implied that God the Father was petty, offended in the way that humans are, and unfree to love and forgive of God’s own volition. This is a very untrustworthy image of God which undercuts everything else.

I take up this subject with both excitement and trepidation because I know that substitutionary atonement is central to many Christians’ faith. But the questions of why Jesus died and what is the meaning and message of his death have dominated the Christian narrative, often much more than his life and teaching. As some have said, if this theory is true, all we needed were the last three days or even three hours of Jesus’ life. In my opinion, this interpretation has kept us from a deep and truly transformative understanding of both Jesus and Christ.

Salvation became a one-time transactional affair between Jesus and his Father, instead of an ongoing transformational lesson for the human soul and for all of history. I believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is a revelation of the infinite and participatory love of God, not some bloody payment required by God’s offended justice to rectify the problem of sin. Such a story line is way too small and problem-oriented.

References:
[1] This week I will use the phrase “substitutionary atonement” to indicate the most current version of the theory. Throughout Christian history, there have been multiple theories of substitutionary atonement. One of the earliest, the ransom theory, originated with Origen and the early church. Closely related to this was the Christus Victor theory. The ransom view of atonement was the dominant theory until the publication of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) at the end of the 11th century. Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement then became dominant until the Reformed tradition introduced penal substitution in the 16th century. This new view of substitutionary atonement emphasized punishment over satisfaction (Jesus’ crucifixion as a substitute for human sin) and paralleled criminal law. Today, the phrase “substitutionary atonement” is often (correctly or incorrectly) used to refer to the penal theory of atonement. This week’s meditations touch the surface of 2,000 years of complex theological process.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 139-141.

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