The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday and the Atonement

Back in December, I explained my reasons for rejecting the theory of penal substitutionary atonement, and said that I would propose a Lux Mundi-influenced theory of the Atonement.

And then I didn't. Largely because the thought that I could try to encapsulate so much in a blog post was more than slightly daunting. But at today's Three Hours Meditations on the Seven Words, I had a thought regarding the Atonement:

My principal difficulty with PSA has always been its image of God; what kind of God would only spare humanity by sacrificing His Son to the hideous death of the Cross? In "The Atonement" in Lux Mundi, Arthur Lyttleton rejects a savage God propitiated with innocent blood; he stresses, instead, that the Atonement changes the suffering that follows sin from meaningless to transformative:
"Even we," says St. Paul, "which have the first fruits of the Spirit", even we are waiting for the further process, for "the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body." And the process consists in so following "the Captain of our salvation" that, like Him, we accept every one of those sufferings which are the consequences of sin, but accept them not as punishment imposed from without upon unwilling offenders, but as the material of our freewill sacrifice. From no one pang or trial of our nature has He delivered us, indeed, He has rather laid them upon us more unsparingly, more inevitably. But the sufferings from which He would not deliver us He has transformed for us. They are no longer penal, but remedial and penitcntial. Pain has become the chastisement of a Father who loves us, and death the passage into His very presence.
"The Atonement," Lux Mundi at 254-25.

Embedded in Lyttleton's argument is the need for punishment to serve the justice of God. But, perhaps, the Atonement is not for what Jean Anouilh called "the Honor of God." Perhaps, instead, is for our benefit--that is, we need to be made aware of the profound love God bears us, how much He yearns to be reconciled with us--so much so, that, in fact, He will Himself show us how to live--to take up our cross and follow Him, or, put in more mundane terms, to live lives reponding to the magnitude of the gift of forgiveness we have been given, and in relationship as reconciled children of God. Perhaps it is we who cannot accept forgiveness without cost, or understand love without limit, until it is shown to us--until we can probe our Lord's wounds ourselves, and marvel.

Lyttleton puts forward a vision of the Atonement that is grounded not just in His death, but in Christ's whole life; a vision of a human being who is so steeped in God and so responsive to God, that He is able to give all to God, even to the point of death--even when God's absence is felt by Jesus in the moment of death--an absence,Lytleton suggests, that Jesus had never known before. In so living, and so dying, Jesus models for us our optimum response to God.

We can't do that, of course. The fallibility of the apostles must cheer us, to some extent. But, perhaps, we can like them strive to live in harmony, in relationship, with God, with Jesus's example, such that we can surprise ourselves. Paul, the legalist, becomes the advocate of inclusion beyond the Law; Peter, who denied Christ and fled, becomes the model of bravery. Thomas, who doubted, is made steadfast. As Lyttleton writes, "we are justified because we believe in God, but also because God believes in us." (Id. at 254).

Now, Lyttleton does not wholly reject PSA--he suggests that God's justice cannot spare us eternal death without some sacrifice, made by Jesus, who is representative of us (and mystically one with us)--but can initiate reconciliation by being without sin. But he also makes the point, related here, that Jesus's death on our behalf calls for a response from us--that he is teaching us what it means to be forgiven, and to live as a child of God: not in self-aggrandizement or in smug satisfaction like Spintho in Androcles and the Lion, but in awareness that ourselves forgiving and responding to forgiveness, are the essence of atonement. Lyttleton sees Jesus's life as reuniting us with God, that culminates not just in the Cross, but in the New Life that follows it.


Anonymous said...

"My principal difficulty with PSA has always been its image of God; what kind of God would only spare humanity by sacrificing His Son to the hideous death of the Cross?"

Isn't that difficulty answered by the doctrine of the Trinity, though? If the Son were in fact an innocent other it certainly would be monstrous. But if the Son is God just as much as the Father is God, we are talking about the difference between arbitrary sacrifice of another and self-sacrifice, a significant moral distinction, no?

--rick allen

Anglocat said...

Very fair point, Rick--and your distinction is one that's significant and salient. I certainly didn't mean to veer off into polytheism.

Let me rephrase my point a little, though, because I butchered my own earlier post on PSA: Some of the advocates of PSA propose that God abhors our sin--Jonathan Edward memorably compared us with a spider over a flame--and ordains as a matter of justice that someone has to suffer for our sin, and then takes it on Himself.

It's the idea that God ordains suffering, and views us with abhorrence that I find unbiblical.

Thanks for calling me (in a charitable way) on my error.