A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Omnipotence and atonement

Apologies for the abstract nature of this. Hopefully it is understandable.

If we affirm that God is all powerful, we must explore the nature of His power. What is the cause of God’s power? If the cause is anything other than God’s own desire, then one has painted God’s actions as dependent on something else. Therefore, God is not omnipotent. Only if God’s own desire is the only necessary and sufficient cause is God omnipotent.

If that is the case, what God wishes to do must not be necessitated upon any previous cause, even another action of God. If a previous action of God is necessary to perform another action, then part of the power is not placed in the desire of God, but the action itself. Omnipotence doesn’t exist in that case, but God requires more than Himself to perform an action. Now this does not mean that God can not desire to work in such a manner that also uses another cause than His own desire, but He can not be bound to any specific method of doing something.

Applying this to atonement, satisfacation theories begin to fall short. If God wants to forgive, he doesn’t have to have another cause (Jesus’ death) in order to appease His wrath other than His own desire to forgive and save. Is God powerful enough to forgive without sacrifice? If so, His desire is sufficient, and sacrifice does not appease God.

Atonement can not be theologically-centered then (theology proper, that is). It must become anthropologically-centered. Sacrifice isn’t about what it does to God, but what it does to us.

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October 15, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

The sacrifices and Jesus’ atonement

One of the things thoroughly lacking within the New Testament is a specific manner in which Christ’s death plays a role in providing atonement, except through it leading to the resurrection, the victory over death. And yet, the cross plays such a critical role both in the New Testament and theology. Because the New Testament explicitly places an important role on Jesus’ death, and yet there is a lack of New Testament atonement theology, the Torah’s sacrificial system serves as a foundation from which to work from for many people.

It is often times assumed that the sacrifices not only foreshadowing Jesus’ sacrificial death, but also explicitly affirm a theology of appeasement, in which the sacrifice somehow appeases God’s wrath so that He deal with us as His people. I would contend, though, that Jesus’ death doesn’t appease God and that the Torah’s sacrificial system is a foreshadowing of Jesus, not a source for a theological explanation of the saving work exclusive to Jesus’ death.

First off, the problem comes in how we take the Torah’s words about sacrifice. It specifically states that those who fulfill the sacrificial system will be forgiven. If the sacrifices were sufficient for forgiveness, then Jesus’ sacrifice was not necessary for appeasement. If Jesus’ death was necessary for appeasement, then the Torah in fact says something that isn’t true, or one must make an awkward and biblically lacking distinction between different types of forgiveness. If we assume continuity between the Old Covenant and the New, then Jesus’ death being an appeasement of God’s wrath is not theologically workable.

So then the relation between the sacrificial system and Jesus’ atonement is typal and not as much theological, with perhaps God using an already existing practice and giving it value within His Jewish Covenant. Perhaps this can explain why forgiveness was obtained. If the sacrifices played a critical role within the covenant, then it stands to be that the sacrificies implied involvement to the covenant and all that it entailed. Numbers 15:30-31 seems to imply that willful sin lead to a loss in being part of God’s covenant people (“That person must be cut off from among his people”), and with that also, the lack of forgiveness from the sacrifices, given its immediate proximity to Numbers 15:28-29. So, this can serve to explain why Jesus’ sacrifice is for the forgiveness of sins also. It is part of a new covenant, which the participation in brings God’s forgiveness.

However, that still doesn’t serve to explain the saving nature of Jesus’ death. But the only recourse we have left is its association with resurrection. I would contend speaking of Jesus’ death automatically conveyed resurrection. For instance, Hebrews 2:14-15 speaks of how Jesus’ death frees others from the fear of death. But how can death free from the fear of death, unless there is resurrection associated with Jesus’ death?

I also think Hebrews 2:14-15, along with verses 16-17, give the nature of the atonement. Often times, atonement is viewed as substitutionary, Jesus enduring God’s wrath so we won’t have to face it. But instead, the author of Hebrews places priority in Jesus’ participation in the human experience, including death. If we unite death with resurrection, the atonement follows this logic: If Jesus participates in the experience of death that is common to all people, then Jesus’ victory over death in resurrection allows all people to experience victory over death themselves. In the end then, Jesus’ atonement is based upon following the path all humanity goes, but yet with total, ceaseless devotion to God, and then trailing a new path forward beyond death to new life.

Furthermore, Jesus’ own learning of obedience while going up to death also has a soteriological role, and by implication, atonement. Herbrews 5:7-8 says that Jesus made cries for salvation from death and he was heard because of his unwavering devotion to God, but yet he had to actually suffer to the point of death first (incidentially, I tend to think Hebrews 5:8b is hymnic). But it is through that he then is a source of everlasting salvation to all who obey him (5:9). What the author is saying is that Jesus learned full devotion in death, and that his why his trust in the God to raise him from the dead was validated and Jesus vindicated. Thus Jesus, while trusting to not be overcome by death, was able to remain firmly obedient in the face of human temptation and was vindicated, so too can those who obey him in overcoming temptation, even to the point of death (cf. Hebrews 12:4). They trust that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so will they also. So they can obey and overcome temptation, and thus be vindicated/justified themselves.

So, atonement can not be attributed to death alone, but it is had in Jesus participation in human life and death and then victory over death in resurrection. Salvation is had in being united to Jesus example (Romans 6:1-14). The sacrificial systems serve as only a basic typal relationship then and does not provide a theological or anthropological basis for salvation.

Atonement is best described as the combination of Christus Victor and Irenaeus’ recapitulation. It doesn’t make the focal point of salvation freedom from the devil itself as Christus Victory does (though it certaintly plays a role, as in Hebrews 2:14-15), but rather psychological in that freedom from fear of death allows obedience and freedom from sin (I would contend Romans 5 should be understood as the problem of death, after entering the world, being the cause of sin, instead of the reverse). But it also appropriates an important role to Jesus’ involvement in the human life, but not so much to sanctify life, but to provide the sanctified way of life. Incarnation becomes essential in that Jesus is the revelation of God’s own righteous nature, that we ourselves to live by. But then these two parts are pieced together, with the righteous life as lived by Jesus to be followed by others to the point of death because they trust they will share in Jesus’ resurrection.

October 13, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment