This is the first of a series of posts on some issues that I feel Christendom may be holding apart which needs to rather be held and taught through together.
So it began by reading 2 Old Testament scholars of our times – Peter Enns and John Walton. Then another OT scholar, John Goldingay further stirred the hornet’s nest with his cautions about reading too much legal language into Jesus’s death on the cross. This caused me to go back and read chapter 12 of NT Wright’s seminal “Jesus and the Victory of God”, where he places the Last Supper (Passover) as an important key in understanding Jesus’s aims of going to the cross. Intriguingly I found that the Methodist theologian Michael J. Gorman, who has written extensively on the cross of Jesus Christ, has done a highly commended work on atonement called “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement”, where he comes at it from the perspective of the Last Supper, raising the point that atonement theories have for too long focused on the mechanics, and not the overall goal of Jesus’ death and resurrection. So how did it end, you ask? Well, you’ll have to be a little patient with me, since I’m only on page 1 with Dr. Gorman. Do check back again in a few days when I’m finished with it and I’ll let you know what I think of it.
In the meantime though, the subject of atonement had been brewing in my mind for a few years now, and I’m already beginning to sense a way forward in the usually polarized debate between adherents of penal substitutionary atonement – the dominant model – and Christus Victor or ransom theories. And that way forward comes from a combination of thoughts from 2 sources – 1) Paul the ancient apostle and 2) a re-reading of the even more ancient story of Adam and Eve from an Ancient Near Eastern perspective, and all this with a bit of help from a particular song in George Frederik Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio. I dare say though that in articulating my thoughts, I’m going to be “slaying” a few sacred cows, but please bear with me till the end, after which you can carry it forward in your own thought processes to see if it works.
The Story of Our House
Twenty two years ago, we moved to our father’s newly built house in a newly developing peri-urban community called Agbogba. Today it’s a nice throbbing surburb in Accra, but back then it was like living in a thousand miles from nowhere. Being surrounded by thick bush and with virtually no neighbours, we faced a lot of attacks from reptiles – snakes and scorpions in particular. I remember we killed quite a few scorpions in our bathroom (God knows how they got there, or why they were so attracted to the bathroom in particular). Once though, a snake of all things actually entered our room in the evening, when we were not even connected to the national power grid and were surviving by the use of lanterns. Thanks to God that nobody in our family was ever bitten by any of these reptiles, as we spotted them early enough to kill them.
But imagine that someone had actually been bitten by one of these reptiles, especially by the snake that actually entered our living room. We’d have had to rush the person to the hospital, whiles some of us would probably also make the effort to search for and kill this snake – lest they strike again whiles comfortably hiding somewhere inside the house.
With this story in mind, take a look at what Paul says in 1 Cor 15, quoting Hosea 13:14
“ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law”. (1 Cor 15:55-56).
So now you know which song in Handel’s “Messiah” is playing in the background – “Part III, Duet (Alto and Tenor) – O death, where is thy sting”. I wish I could embed it in this blog, but I digress.
Here, Paul pictures death as a reptile that has a sting – a sting called called “sin”. And the poison within that sting is called “the law”. Hmm, any parallels to my story of snakes and scorpions in our house 22 years ago?
Well, one I can clearly see is that if “death” who is the snake/scorpion/bee (or any other stinging animal that works for your imagination) in Paul’s allusion is not killed, he can still infect other people with “sin”, which works through “the law”. Death then, is the real enemy.
But doesn’t the same Paul rather say that “sin leads to death” e.g. “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23)? Isn’t sin the real enemy? Well yes and no. Think about it. The goal of sin is to bring us to it’s master – death. That’s why death is the payment or ultimate goal. Death is the snake that has infected the world with sin, and without defeating it but simply treating sin, death will simply reinfect us again.
So how is death, sin and law properly related? Why does Paul speak in such terms? Here comes the brilliance of reading the story of Adam and Eve not as modern people, but as an ancient document written to an ancient people, and here I’m grateful to John Walton’s “The Lost Gospel of Adam and Eve” for restating what I always thought was obvious but wasn’t so apparently.
Adam and Eve As Ancient People
Let me retell the story of Adam and Eve, particularly of what Christians call “The Fall”. As I’ve often said elsewhere, a large part of the reason why many misunderstand and misinterpret scripture is simply because they approach it from the wrong perspective. For any serious student of the bible then, learning the appropriate perspectives with which to read scripture is paramount, because contrary to the general Christian thinking, scripture can (and evidently has) yield multiple interpretations based on one’s approach to it. So let’s ignite our imagination with this retelling.
Fair warning: the following contains some shockers and might wreck your Christianity.
God creates Adam and Eve, who are subject to death and sin and aren’t perfect.
God desires that as representatives of the human race, Adam and Eve be able to overcome their mortality. Although he doesn’t tell them, he therefore provides a “Tree of Life”, which can give Adam and Eve victory over their mortality i.e. over death (hint … “but thanks be to God! He gives us the victory[over death] through our Lord Jesus Christ” – 1 Cor 15:57).
God desires that they obtain all wisdom from him and not from themselves (hint – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – Ps 111:10).
God warns them (i.e. he introduces “the law”) that eating of the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of God and Evil (i.e. wisdom independent of God) will lead to “death” – i.e. it will prevent them from gaining access to the Tree of Life. They were already mortals and subject to death, but disobeying God means they will not have “life” but rather remain in their susceptibility to death forever (hint – “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – Jn 10:10).
The serpent deceives Eve that eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she will “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). This is a lie, because being a mortal with finite knowledge, there is no way they can know as much as God does enough to discern good and evil. But humans choose independence from God. They could have been sinful people all this while, but as Paul says, “sin is not reckoned without law”. Therefore they breaking “the law” not to eat of that fruit then leads to them being held accountable thenceforth for all their actions, having chosen independence from God.
Has your mind been blown yet, or do I need to try harder? Well, I’m still reeling even as I type. Suffice it to say that this scheme of reading Genesis 2 & 3 puts the focus squarely on who the real enemy has been all this time – mortality i.e. death, and Satan (who in the NT is associated with the serpent). It points out that humanity indeed needs a shot of anti-venom to save them from sin (forgiveness of sins), but to prevent the sting from being reinjected again, the stinger (death and Satan) need to be defeated. Doing the latter (defeating death) without the former means the poison hasn’t been removed. Doing the former without the latter means that even though the poison has been removed, there is room for another bite down the line.
One thing to note though. Knowing the story of Jesus and his statements in the Gospels, it is possible to read backwards (what Richard Hays calls “figural reading”, or Peter Enns calls a “Christotellic reading”) to see that the Tree of Life was actually Jesus, as he claimed he was the source of life in the Gospels. See the trick? But we leave that there.
Why Haven’t You Heard It Explained This Way Before?
So here are the further stingers that you didn’t know, especially if you are a Ghanaian reading this blog post.
As a Ghanaian, the Christianity you practice today is inherited from what historians call “Western Christianity”. In the year 1054, the church which was one united organisation split into the Eastern (Greek dominated) and Western (Roman/Latin dominated) churches. Therefore the historical term “Western Christianity” refers to all Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. And by default, Western Christianity reads Genesis and Paul according to how a very important saint in the church’s history interprets them – St Augustine of Hippo.
According to St. Augustine’s interpretation of Adam and Eve and Paul’s writings, Adam and Eve were sinless, perfect people, and all humanity inherits their sin through direct descent from them, with the addition that no human being is capable of doing any good as a result of this (what is called depravity). The term “original sin” is used to describe Adam & Eve’s sin and its effects, as expounded by St. Augustine. Some critical scholars think his interpretation is based on a particular (mis)reading of Rom 5:12, especially in the Latin translations of the bible during his times.
On the other hand, if you were born in Greece or Russia and were still a practicing Christian, you might probably have a different understanding of Genesis 2 & 3, because the Eastern church never accepted Augustine’s “original sin” and “depravity” premise. They hold to the notion that everyone is capable of good and evil, and accountable as such for their own actions, which cannot be blamed on Adam and on “human depravity”. However, as far as I know (and I stand to be corrected, being a mere mortal myself), they also hold that Adam was perfect and sinless at creation.
But what if you were a Jew? After all, the Old Testament wasn’t first written to Christians, but to the people of Israel. Well, Judaism is much closer to the Eastern church in this regard, and most Jewish Rabbis react almost “violently” to any suggestions about “original sin” and man being totally incapbable of good that pleases God. Sadly there’s very little commentary about Adam in the Old Testament, and one has to go into books from the 2nd Temple period of Jewish history (which are not within our bibles) to find extensive commentary on Adam. As a result, I believe John Walton’s retelling of Genesis 2 & 3 may be much closer to the Jewish understanding of Adam and Eve than most I’ve heard.
But at least they all agree that humanity as it stands today is sinful, and on that there is no debate.
One notable thing though, is that the Augustinian interpration of Adam and Eve is the main reason why Evangelical Christianity, being children of the Reformation and hence of Western Christianity, is chock full of resistance against any scientific explanations of human origins, because it requires Adam and Eve to be the first human beings so that sin could have been transmitted through them and all humanity can be considered depraved. But that’s a conversation for another time.
Healing The Divide: Atonement Theories
But all this leads me to the two dominant atonement theories, and here is where my thoughts now lead me to.
We need an integration between Christus Victor, which emphasizes Christ’s victory over death and Satan, and penal substitutionary atonement, which emphasizes Christ’s death in our place to cleanse us from sin. Personally, my view of atonement as of today is in line with 1 Cor 15:55 – the stinger must be defeated alongside his sting, or else all the efforts are useless. Therefore in terms of logical flow, I place Christus Victor before penal substitution. This is mostly because it situates the discussion cosmically, before it does so on an individual level.
Many people have pointed out flaws in both models (or in how people explain both models), and adherents of both must pay attention to the critique, and not declare each other as heretics. In my experience, Protestant Christians, especially those who are not very conversant with church history, have a knee-jerk reaction everytime any critique is raised of penal substituionary atonement, primarily because it first defines the problem just as Augustine posed it – that the greater need is saving us from our sins – a salvation which tends to be very individualistic in nature. A case in point: a British pastor Steve Chalke and Alan Mann wrote a book in which in just one chapter, they critiqued some portions of penal substitution. Not only were they ostracised, but one of those who endorsed their books – NT Wright, who is an adherent of both models of atonement – got maligned for supporting “heresy”. The question I asked then is whether we are letting our pet theologies lead us, supposing that our tradition alone has he corner on truth; or whether we are letting the whole witness of the bible tell us how to interpret and understand Jesus.
There are more atonement theories beyond these 2 main ones, and the more we work to integrate the grand picture painted by the New Testament of the meaning of Jesus death and resurrection, the more fully fledged our Christianity will be, especially in practice, not just in theory.
Now that I’ve got this off my chest, I’m going to return to Michael Gorman. As I mentioned on my facebook wall yesterday, I’m sticking to reading Old Testament theology and the theology of Richard B. Hays this year with the little reading time I have. However, I can almost guarantee that Michael Gorman’s Passover centered view of atonement will be a worthwhile diversion from my stated reading tasks.
Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb Has Conquered, Let Us Follow Him.