Friday, January 27, 2012

Christian Believer: Week Fourteen {Atonement}

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
["When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", Isaac Watts]

The last lesson we had before our break was "Atonement" (Restored to Union with God).

We watched the video first. It discussed how Jesus death relates to our human condition- our distorted relation to God and how Jesus's death overcame sin.  It's so much easier to view his death as an example of a good person fighting evil or as an event that exposes human sin.  These aren't wrong, but they don't fully describe atonement, an event by which our relationship to God is changed.  Atonement is a difficult doctrine for several reasons.  First, the word atone is not really commonly used in our vocabularies.  Second, it is rooted in an ancient practice that we have never (and will never) see- ritual killing of an animal and the use of it's blood in the temple.  Finally, some object to the idea that God would even be involved in Jesus's death, and see this as cruel.  The video ended with these lines, which I thought were really good- "The atonement is not something Jesus did to change God from a God of wrath and vengeance to a God of love and reconciliation.  God's reconciling love is not the result of atonement, rather atonement is the result of his reconciling love". 

The workbook started out by saying that some concepts are just to large to grasp simply by looking at factual data; we need an image.  "So it is with atonement.  The concept is too big for words; but when we turn to images, we are also in uncertain territory. In careless hands, images may seem confusing, or even unpleasant.  Also, we discover different people need different images, and what conveys the concept to one is only bewildering or distracting to another."  It then stated that the word atonement, unlike many theological terms, actually appears in the Bible.

There is probably no human experience more universal than the sense of separation from God, it continues, and the longing that sense of separation creates. We need somehow a way to be "at one" with God; a way for our sin stained relationship to be reestablished.  Notably, this sense of separation is seen in all cultures, modern and primitive, even though standards of morality vary so widely between cultures.  Many modern thinkers discredit this thought process as "primitive".  However, they might better say it is "unspoiled by rationalization".  Our basic instinct tells us we ought to be in right relationship with God.

The book went on to discuss and differentiate theories of atonement. The first, taken from the letter to the Ephesians, was redemption, meaning the human race is "mortgaged" beyond it's own power to redeem; even to the point where we are sold into slavery to sin.  But our closest kin, our "divine Elder Brother" comes to pay the price of our redemption, the price being his very own death.  The second theory, based off of John the Baptist's hailing of Jesus as the "lamb of God", is the expiation theory. Expiation means appeasing or purifying through a sacred rite, in this case through the blood of Christ, the perfect lamb.

The next theory was the moral example or the moral influence.  This theory states that because Christ's death was the perfect example of God's love, those who recognize this love will be moved to salvation and will be influenced to live lives of love. During the twentieth century, this theory gained promince an was sometimes presented with more emphasis on Christ's life than on his death.  It reasoned that there was "transforming power in the moral grandeur of Christ, so when person see the beauty of his life, teachings, and death, they will be moved to live in accord with Jesus' ways".  This approach appeals to the idealistic nature, but some say it minimizes the importance of Jesus's actual crucifixion. I kind of agree with this criticism.  The most often referred to theory is probably substitution and is based on a very simple idea, one life for another. It shares some of the same insights as the redemption and expiation theories and Scriptures that apply to those could apply to the substitution theory as well.  The next theory one that focuses on reconciliation; it suggests that sin has put a great barrier between God and humankind and Jesus reconciles us to God by his death.

Yet another theory is the theory of wrath.  Many theologians, especially during Medieval times, reasoned that Christ's death appeased the wrath of God, a wrath that a sin infected humanity deserved.  The final theory is the ransom theory.  Some contemporary theologians think that this is the oldest theory of atonement and the "classic theory".  It states that the Adversary, Satan, had a claim on the human raise because of our sin, even to the extent of us being in his possession. Christ's blood is seen as a ransom for this horrific bondage.  It's a great answer to the wrath of God theory because it puts the emphasis back on the goodness of God.

The book again goes back to how hard it is to convey accurately this doctrine, even with the images above.  It says at some point we may have to stop analyzing and speculating and realize that we really have no satisfactory language to successfully convey it.

Here are my favorite excerpts from the text and Scripture from that week:

"The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those whoa are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so they are outwardly clean.  How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God." -Hebrews 9:13-14

"Yet everyone becomes more righteous- by which we mean a greater lover of the Lord- after the Passion of Christ than before, since a realized gift inspires greater love than one which is only hoped for." -Peter Abelard

"Finally, since as God only he could not suffer, and as man only could not overcome death, he united the human nature with the divine, that he might subject the weakness of the one to death as an expiation of sin, and by the power of the other, maintaining a struggle with death, might gain us the victory." -John Calvin

Every week at the end of the workbook reading, it ends with an affirmation.  I think I will start ending each post in the same way.

Because we the church believe Christ has made us at one with God, I accept the divine love and will seek to extend it to others.

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