Ockham’s Atonement

Throughout Lent, I read with interest Tony Jones’ posts on the atonement. I read his e-book, A Better Atonement, and watched his recent sermon at Baylor University Chapel.

[A quick note, rather than a full review, of Tony's e-book. I'm intrigued by the way Tony is leading the charge toward electronic self-publishing. The e-book version of his dissertation is the first serious non-fiction book I have read this way. But, A Better Atonement is probably not the best example of how to use this medium. Stringing together a bunch of blog posts, especially when you don't edit sections that clearly reference the original context, does not a book make. There are great ideas in this work, and it is a helpful brief introduction to atonement theology, but I think Tony could have provided a better service with better editing and expanding on his original blog posts.]

I have found these discussions quite stimulating because I share Tony’s interest in thinking through what Jesus’ death really does for us and how it does it. The introductory lines of a summary post articulate the issues at hand:

Christians know why Jesus died: He died for our sins. That’s what we’re taught from the earliest days of Sunday school.

 

And we all know how he died: A particularly gruesome form of public execution known as crucifixion.

 

But many Christians are less sure of how it works. How is it that Jesus’ death accomplishes the forgiveness of my sin? By what cosmic mechanism does that take place?

 

In other words, there comes a time in every Christian’s life when the Sunday School answer, “Jesus died for my sins,” falls short. We want to know how it works.

One of my great passions in ministry is leading confirmation for young people. I love the challenge of presenting the essentials of Christian faith to youth in a way that is intelligible and relevant. It is the closest thing I do to systematic theology. I routinely find myself thinking through the basic elements of Christian faith and practice. Why do we believe the things we do? What is our best articulation of the gospel? Are there elements of traditional Christian theology that we need to rethink?

Right now I am in the midst of reading our confirmands’ statements of faith and meeting with each one of them individually. As is often the case, I’m finding that when it comes to Jesus’ death most of them can tell me what Tony calls the Sunday School answer, but none of them can explain how it works. (To be fair, I don’t generally spend a lot of time teaching atonement theories because, as you will see, I don’t find them all that helpful for Christian faith today.)

Through his blog, book, and sermon, Tony discusses the most common theological approaches to the atonement. He begins by dismantling the traditional doctrine of original sin. He also does a great job demonstrating the weaknesses of the penal substitution and ransom captive theories. In the end, he suggests a pastiche approach that primarily relies on René Girard’s scapegoat theory and Jürgen Moltmann’s notion of God’s perfect solidarity with humanity in the incarnation and death of Jesus.

In the end, I agree that these are better atonement theories than penal substitution or ransom captive. But I don’t think that Tony goes far enough in his rethinking of the atonement.

He notes that atonement theories are all just that: theories. He is careful to point out the contextual situations that gave rise to each one. He acknowledges that these are finite attempts to make sense of something that Christians have generally agreed is a profound mystery. Atonement theories have never been a matter of orthodoxy versus heresy, he says. A particular atonement theory was not codified in an early church creed.

Further, Tony shows a preference for theologies that don’t rely solely on the crucifixion, recognizing instead that the resurrection is really the most important part of the story.

But why not go a bit further? Why not rest the entire theological import of Holy Week on the resurrection? Perhaps all of our theological speculations about the cosmic or theological meaning of Jesus’ death have been misguided all along.

As yesterday’s post about a down to earth Holy Week hinted at, my approach to these events are firmly rooted in history and context. As far as I’m concerned, that Jesus died on a Roman cross is a historical fact without question. And I think that the reason for his death is clear: he confronted the political and religious powers of his day with a radically alternative vision and they executed him because they perceived him as a threat. Why do we need more than this?

Historically, Christians have needed more because of a robust belief in God’s providence. Historically, Christians have believed that everything happens for a reason, that everything is part of some divine plan. This is especially true for something major like the execution of Jesus. How could something so clearly outside of what people expected be anything but something intentional, orchestrated by God from behind the scenes?

But, whether because of approaches like process theology or for other reasons, not all Christians today are so confident that everything happens for a reason. Perhaps God doesn’t work in human history as was assumed by first century Jews—and most Christians today.

I, for one, do not believe that God causes suffering, or even allows it to happen as part of God’s will or plan. I think suffering happens because it is a natural part of human life, but I just can’t accept that God would cause anyone to suffer.

Yet we all know people who insist that tragedies must somehow be God’s will. We want to believe that things happen for a reason. When I was a teenager, the daughter of one of my youth leaders died of breast cancer. When I asked my pastor how God could let that happen, his answer was, “It must be part of God’s plan.” What kind of plan is that? I just don’t buy it.

So why should it be different for the cross? Why must we assume that it was part of a plan? What if it was one of countless tragedies that God neither causes nor fails to prevent?

The crucifixion is a fact of history that was given a theological explanation by followers of Jesus who were so stunned by what happened to their master that they assumed it must have been part of a grand scheme. But what if we don’t make that assumption? What if we don’t need a theological explanation?

The cross is a human tragedy, like so many tragedies we encounter every day. (In this respect, I am sympathetic to Tony’s focus on the cross as divine solidarity with humanity.) But the really important part of the story is the resurrection. The resurrection gives us hope that nothing—no tragedy, no mistake, no sin—is beyond the redemptive power of God’s love.

I titled this post “Ockham’s Atonement” not because William of Ockham had a theory of the atonement (that I’m aware of). Rather, I’m suggesting an approach to Jesus’ death that applies Ockham’s Razor: a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one. Jesus died because he was executed by the powers he threatened. To suggest anything else is to overlay this fact of history with unnecessary theological speculation.

In the end, though, I agree with Tony that all theories of what happened when Jesus died are theories that we can take or leave. If you want to maintain a more traditional view, that’s fine with me. But, if like me you find that the traditional view doesn’t make much sense and unnecessarily complicates matters, then consider the approach I’ve suggested here.

Mourn Jesus’ death on Friday. Think about how his death relates to all of the other tragedies in life. But wait until Sunday for the theological key that gives it all meaning.

Comments

  1. Cary Donham says:

    John, I’m sure I am saying something covered by something you referenced, but to me the point of Jesus’ crucifixtion is that he faced among the worst that humans suffer–an unjust execution, when he was guilty lof nothing more than opposing the authorities. So far we are on the same page I think. But having faced this suffering in human form, Jesus/god “descended into Hell” and therefore can truly be present in human suffering.

    Cary

  2. Jeffrey Carter (@pointsnfigures) says:

    I never thought of the crucifixtion in a different way until this blog post. Actually never thought too much about it. It was just accepted that He died in a brutal manner. I am not an Old Testament expert, but wasn’t it foretold that he would die? So, wasn’t death pre-ordained?

    Death certainly humanizes God to me. It’s something I can understand. The resurrection is something that certainly isn’t human. I guess that’s why we have hope.

    • I think it is more accurate to say that after Jesus died some of the early Christians went through the Old Testament to cherry pick some passages that would support the theory that God orchestrated it. Jesus himself might have even done that, when he realized where things were heading. But for something that is so obvious to Christians in hindsight, you’d be hard pressed to find Jews contemporary with Jesus that would have read their scriptures to suggest that the messiah would be killed as part of some redemptive act on God’s part.

      • Cameron Smith says:

        Isaiah 52:13-53:12, I’m told, is not a popular or even widely familiar text in the synagogue presently. On the other hand, there are reams of Christian responses to the text — but even so, I don’t think it’s quite fair or accurate to say that one would be “hard pressed to find Jews contemporary with Jesus that would have read their scriptures to suggest that the messiah would be killed as part of some redemptive act on God’s part.” How do you read that text?

        • In the original context, it was a metaphor for Israel in exile. It was later Christians–and maybe Jesus himself–that applied it as a way to think about the messiah. I think that most of the rabbinical interpretations of this passage understood it as referring to Israel as a whole or to other Jewish groups or figures. I believe there were a few rabbinical traditions that connected the suffering servant to the messiah, but I think that was a minority view. The many ways in which it was interpreted just shows that this image of a suffering servant was a compelling metaphor that could be used in a variety of ways.

  3. John, Somebody on my comment section in after the posting I wrote about your view of Christ’s death has suggested that you do not believe in the physical resurrection of Christ. I did not think after what you just wrote that would be true. Do you believe in the bodily resurrection?http://www.naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2012/04/my-thoughts-on-john-vests-posting-about.html

    • It probably sounds like a postmodern cop-out to you, but the historicity of the resurrection is pretty much a non-issue for me. There certainly are progressives that go out of their way to say that they don’t think it happened, or that it was just symbolic or some kind of spiritual resurrection or something. Those are responses to questions that don’t really concern me anymore. I don’t think that the truth of Christianity hinges on whether or not the resurrection happened as a fact of history.

      Resurrection is obviously beyond normal experience, but there is a lot of stuff that happens beyond “normal” experience, so I don’t discount it.

      For me, the resurrection is a powerful story of redemption that demonstrates the power of God’s love. I hope that it did happen. But I don’t think it’s all that helpful to bend over backwards to argue for or against it.

      And if it were somehow proven that it didn’t happen (which I don’t think is possible), I don’t think it would be the end of Christianity. If Christianity is nothing more than Jesus’ death and resurrection, then we really are to be pitied. But I think Christianity is much more than that.

      • One of my favorite preachers consistently uses the same phrase when talking about many different stories in Scripture, “the greatest truth in that story is not that it happened, but that it happens…in fact, that it is happening.”

        Like you, John, I don’t find it useful to spin too many wheels proving, debating, or disproving whether the literal, physical resurrection happened.

        Like you, I hope it did.

        Ultimately, I believe the gospel is intended to teach us how to live much more than it is intended to teach us how to believe. And when we get hung up on how we believe to the detriment of how we live, we do the gospel a disservice.

        So, for me, it is much more useful to know that resurrection happens (and is, indeed, happening) than it is to know that it happened.

  4. Not a cop out John, not even disbelief since you said that such questions do not concern you. It almost sounds like your own ideas are all that hold you to your work. Of course also love of those you minister to, but if you do not have a real relationship with the risen Lord of the Church how will you minister the love of Christ to them in their greatest times of need, because only his help and love coming from us can be the final answer.

    Calvin’s and the other great reformers answer to our ministry was our union to the risen Lord-his life to us-our life to others.

    • Thanks for (once again) being so concerned about my relationship with God. I can assure you (once again) that I have a real relationship with God and it is most certainly God’s love that empowers the ministry God has called me to.

  5. John,
    It is your relationship with Christ as the risen Lord I am talking about. And I didn’t mean to insult you. If he is not bodily risen how are we in Christ. And yes that is a theological question, but a biblical one too.

  6. Nice post, John.

    My Good Friday sermon traveled a similar road…
    http://www.shuckandjive.org/2012/04/good-friday-reflection.html

    Thanks for your compassionate teaching ministry…

  7. Brian Comments says:

    If you don’t think it matters whether or not Jesus rose from the dead, you don’t have a relationship with God, you have a relationship with an idol.

    • I could just as easily say that if you are so sure about matters of faith and doctrine you don’t have a relationship with God (who can’t be described with finite ideas) and that you are worshiping an idol too. But, I won’t cast stones. That Jesus guy we’re all arguing about said something about that once.

      • Brian Comments says:

        You’re being ridiculous. The resurrection isn’t a “finite idea,” it’s a historical fact which legitimates Jesus’ authority. If he didn’t rise from the dead, it makes no difference what he said about casting stones or anything else, because he’s just another guy. That’s not idolatry, that’s Christianity. And rejecting it isn’t mercy, it’s heresy. I think you’ve found the wrong line of work for yourself.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] figured this out long ago, and that I just making too much of Jesus’ death. One, John Vest, writes,I titled this post “Ockham’s Atonement” not because William of Ockham had a theory of the [...]

  2. [...] Jones asks, “Why a crucifixion?” I first wrote an answer to this question a year ago (read it here) in response to Tony’s ebook  A Better Atonement. Here is the essence of my take on the [...]

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