Human origins, sin, and “fiduciary” atonement

This article by theologian George L. Murphy today is a very helpful discussion of how an evolutionary understanding of human origins affects the Christian doctrines of sin and salvation. Murphy begins by arguing that the evolutionary account is more consistent with a broadly “Eastern” view of original sin (Irenaeus) than with a “Western” one (Augustine). That is to say, humanity was not created perfect but rather was made good but immature. The fall into sin consisted of a deviation from the path God intended us to travel toward the new creation:

We have then a picture of a divinely intended growth of humanity rather than the appearance of fully mature persons. But once sin comes into the world that growth is distorted. […] The picture that we get in the early chapters of Genesis is not so much one of a single abrupt “fall” from perfection in Genesis 3 but of a gradual “falling away” that begins there and worsens in succeeding chapters, which is the point made in Genesis 6:5-7 as it introduces the Flood story.

The root of this “falling away” is a failure to trust God and that our good consists in following the path God intends for us:

Humanity could, with difficulty, have followed the path of development that God intended, for we are not hardwired, either through genes or enculturation, to behave in particular ways. Temptations would, however, have been strong. Sin was, in words of Reinhold Niebuhr, not “necessary” but “inevitable.”

Refusing to trust and obey God, humanity turned from the goal that God intended and chose another path. Soon we had gone astray. Moving away from God, we were lost in the woods and night was falling.

The longer this goes on, the more deeply successive generations are mired in sin, due to a combination of genetic endowment and social-cultural environment. And our idols proliferate as we put our trust in finite things instead of God.

In light of this understanding of sin as departure from the divinely willed path of development, Murphy proposes an account of salvation that emphasizes new creation. “Since the basic problem as I’ve sketched it is that sin has gotten human history off course, new creation can be spoken of as reorientation of the trajectory of creation.”

Drawing on the thought of Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, Murphy sketches an account of the atonement that focuses on how the death and resurrection of Jesus concretely bring reconciliation (at-one-ment) between humanity and God by creating trust (i.e., faith).

The fundamental problem that got humanity going on the wrong road, moving away from God, is failure to put our trust in the true God. Instead, as Paul argues in Romans 1, people place their confidence in all kinds of idols. That is why humanity was estranged from God, and that is what God had to correct in order to turn the course of history back to his intended goal—that is, to reconcile humanity with himself. God must destroy our faith in idols and create faith in himself.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God acts to destroy our trust in these idols and create trust in him. The cross shows us that those things we put our trust in (e.g., governments, religion, morality) can become the instruments by which God-in-the-flesh is killed! But the resurrection shows that God returns as the crucified one who brings not condemnation, but peace.

Murphy calls this a “fiducial influence” theory of the atonement. Like the more familiar “moral influence” theories associated with Peter Abelard, this account emphasizes that it’s humans who need to be reconciled to God, not vice versa, and that the cross of Christ is what makes possible that needed transformation. It differs, however, in emphasizing that it’s faith, not morality, that saves us.

The “Christ-event” creates this trust/faith, which makes possible our re-orientation onto the path God intended for us:

God’s initial work of bringing sinners from spiritual death is followed by continual renewal of faith and sanctification throughout life. The lives of people are turned back toward God, part of the process in which God reorients the course of creation toward accomplishment of his plan spoken of in Ephesians 1:10, to unite all things in Christ.

This re-orientation has social and even cosmic implications, as “a renewed humanity taking seriously God’s call to care for the earth as God’s garden and to exercise responsible stewardship for creation.” Being rightly related to God allows us to be rightly related to each other and to the rest of creation.

I’ve long found Forde’s discussion of the atonement to be helpful because of its focus on how the concrete actuality of the cross effects reconciliation (rather than on some metaphysical “transaction” happening behind the scenes). And I agree with Murphy that his “fiduciary” theory is more consistent with an evolutionary understanding of human origins than certain traditional atonement theories–for example those which presuppose that physical death is a result of human sin.

Friday Links

–Marvin on the Presbyterian Church’s decision to allow congregations to call non-celibate gay and lesbian pastors.

–Libraries are part of the social safety net.

–“I hated vegans too, but now I am one.”

–On anti-Semites and philo-Semites.

–Mark Bittman asks, “Why bother with meat?”

–Jesus and eco-theology.

–Jeremy discusses Herbert McCabe and Gerhard Forde on the Atonement.

–Your commute is killing you.

–Rowan Williams’ Ascension Day sermon: “The friends of Jesus are called … to offer themselves as signs of God in the world.”

–Grist’s “great places” series continues with two posts on the industrial food system and its alternatives.

–Keith Ward on his recent book More than Matter?

–Russell Arben Fox on the Left in America.

–The Cheers challenge. My wife and I have already been rewatching the entire series. We’re on season 6 now, which replaces Shelley Long’s Diane with Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, although the earlier seasons are probably the best ones.

–Ozzy’s first two solo albums, which are generally considered classics, have gotten the deluxe reissue treatment. Here’s a review.

Paul Zahl’s theology of grace

Another newish book that I picked up almost on a whim is Paul Zahl’s Grace In Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. Zahl was until recently dean of Trinity Episcopal Seminary, is a determined low-church evangelical and vocal opponent of revisionist moves on same-sex relationships. Despite some disagreement there, I’d read his Short Systematic Theology (and he means short – it’s less that 100 pages) and was intrigued enough to want to read more.

I’d describe Zahl as a kind of Episcopal version of Gerhard Forde. He is proudly “long on grace and short on law.” This book is an expostion of Zahl’s theology and its application to daily living that is rigorously grace-centered. He defines grace simply as “one-way love,” the love of God for human beings who have done nothing to deserve it.

Zahl unabashedly embraces the Law-Gospel hermenuetic in his approach to scripture. The law is the perfect picture of what human life should be, but it is unable to produce the obedience it demands. If anything, its demands incite rebellion. Consequently, the law takes the form of accusation: an accusation we experience in all the pressures and stresses of life as demands press down upon us:

What the law requires is exactly what men and women need in order to be wise, happy, and secure. But the law cannot pull this off. The problem with the law is not its substance. The problem with the law is its instrumentality. The law is not up to the task it sets for itself. If the law says, “Jump,” I sit. If it says, “Run,” I walk. If it says, “Honor your father and mother,” I move…to Portland. If it say, “Do not covet” (Romans 7:7-8), I spend all day on the Home Shopping Channel. (p. 35)

Only grace, God’s one-way love, can get us out of this jam. God’s unilateral forgiveness takes away our guilt and anxiety about not being able to measure up. And, as a bonus, grace produces the “fruits” of love that the law couldn’t. “The one-way love of grace is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience” (p. 36).

One of the interesting things Zahl does is attempt to rehabilitate the theory of substitutionary atonement in a way that speaks a graceful word rather than a judgmental one. He has, he says repeatedly, a very low anthropology and a very high soteriology. Human beings are bound, curved in on ourselves, and unable to do anything to release the load of guilt and judgment from our shoulders. Only Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross releases us from this curse:

The atonement of Christ on the cross is the mechanism by which God’s grace can be offered freely and without condition to strugglers in the battle of life. Grace is not offered by God as a fiat. We all wish that the innocent had not had to die for the guilty. We wish that a different road, a road less traveled in scars, had been taken. But we have been told that this was the necessary way by which God’s law and God’s grace would be resolved. It had to be resolved through a guilt-transfer, making it “possible” — the idea is almost beyond maintaining — for God to give the full scholarship to the candidate least qualified to receive it. (pp. 117-18)

Not eveyone will be convinced by Zahl’s defense of penal substitution (I’m not sure I was), but it does preserve something that I think other atonement theories often miss. Too often, especially in liberal theology, the atonement is reduced to an example, or a way of life, which deprives it of its once-for-all efficacy that lifts the burden of guilt off the shoulders of poor sinners. Zahl’s surprisingly convincing defense of the un-free will and total depravity are the counterpoint to the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. If the cross of Christ is just one more demand (“Live a life of radical justice and self-sacrifice!”), then it does nothing to free me from my sins and self-will.

The more original part of Zahl’s book may be his application of the idea of grace to relationships, in family, society and church. One-way love, not law and its threats and demands is the natural “fruit” of our justification. The image of fruits is particularly important in understanding the dynamic here. You don’t get a plant to produce fruit by pulling on its branches. You have to nourish its roots, in this case with the living water of grace.

In families the theology of grace takes the form of loving acceptance, not heaping demands on each other. Zahl applies this to relationships between spouses, between parents and children, and between siblings. He argues that many of the troubles that plague family life, from resentment, to control, to competition, are outgrowths of a legalistic approach to life together. Paradoxically, he says, the relativization of the nuclear family by Jesus actually constitutes its salvation:

The end of the absolute claim of the nuclear family, for which grace strictly calls, emancipates the nuclear family from the very nerve of neurosis, which is the projection upon human beings of what belongs only to God. The grace of God releases the possibility of non-demanding love among men and women who are united by human blood. This is the salvation of the famous nuclear family. (p. 186)

Zahl applies his theology of grace in particularly striking ways to social ethics. Zahl, a student of both Moltmann and Kasemann, jettisons the “two kingdom” ethics identified with traditional Lutheranism and comes to some surprising conclusions for someone identified with the “conservative” wing of Anglicanism:

“What is grace in relation to war and peace? It is to support no war ever under any conceivable circumstances, and it is peace in all things, the passive peace of Christ-like nonreactivity, bound ot the never-passive operation of the Holy Spirit” (p. 203).

“Total mercy, complete exoneration, and unconditional release: those are the marks of grace in relation to criminal justice” (p. 211).

“A theology of grace invites a non-romanticized preferential option for the poor. The picture of this is probably soemthing like a moderate, non-ideological, and non-utopian form of socialism” (p. 217).

“Just as this theology opposes the use of war in every case, it opposes the construction of malls in every case. One can imagine the construction of a “mall” that buys and sells in a normal and necessary way. One can imagine instances of a market that buys and sells, provides, and distributes. But the mall as we now know it is the “green tree” under which the firstborn of the Canaanites were sacrificed” (p. 222)

Finally, Zahl addresses grace in church. Here he’s at his most provocative, openly avowing a “low” or even non-existent ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is trouble, both because it is secondary to other more important topics, “such as the saving inherent in the Christian drama” (p. 226) and because it actually does harm to the extent that it “places the human church in some kind of special zone — somehow distinct from real life — that appears to be worthy of special study and attention. The underlying idea is that the church is in a zone that is free, or at least more free, from original sin and total depravity than the rest of the world, but the facts prove otherwise” (p. 226).

To say we have no ecclesiology is not just a negation. To have no ecclesiology is to have an ecclesiology. What sort of ecclesiology is this? It is a noble one. It puts first things first. It puts Christ over the human church. It puts what Christ taught and said over the church. It puts grace over the church. It puts Christ’s saving work and the acute drama of the human predicament over the church. It puts the human hope of change over the church. It places the Holy Spirit over the church. (p. 227).

The besetting temptation of the church is to elevate itself as an institution to a place of special prestige or power. In the impressiveness of its historical claims, or the purity of its doctrine, or the beauty of its liturgy it can become deceived into thinking that it’s an end in itself and has its foundation in itself. According to Zahl the church is properly seen as “a pneumatic, Spirit-led movement, always, like mercury in motion. Church is flux. A systematic theology of grace puts church in its right place. Church is at best the caboose to grace. It is its tail. Ecclesiology, on the other hand, makes church into the engine” (p. 228).

Zahl calls this an “eccleisiology of suspicion,” which denies that there can be any “original sin-free zones” in this world. Those who put their faith in the church rather than God are bound to be bitterly disappointed. “A theology of grace, with its ecclesiology of suspicion, is the tonic and antidote to the church behaving badly” (p. 231). In a time when the church has been behaving badly (on all sides at different points), this strikes me as something that needs to be heard.

Another noteworthy aspect of this book is that Zahl writes clearly and simply, with an almost whimsical tone. His text is littered with pop cultural references to old sci-fie movies, popular music, and even the plays of Tyler Perry, as well as examples drawn from everyday life. One is forced to wonder why more theologians can’t write like this.

Despite some disagreements here and there, my overwhelming impression of this book was that Zahl is preaching a theology of grace that is desperately needed in the church and the world. This thirst for grace may be indicated by the fact that the book carries glowing blurbs from Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University and J. Ligon Duncan of the conservative Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Liberals and conservatives have both embraced different forms of “political correctness” — whether that means fealty to the Millenium Development Goals or opposition to gay marriage and abortion — which threaten to overshadow the gospel of God’s forgiving grace. But Zahl argues persuasively that this the only meaningful possibility for genuine human transformation.

September reading notes

Well, okay, the month isn’t over yet, but it sure is flying.

Earlier I mentioned I was still working on Monbiot’s Heat. Well, I still am. Just haven’t been in the mood to read it. ‘Nuff said.

Finished Jame’s Alison’s Raising Abel. I stand by my earlier claim that, while Alison has some absolutely brilliant insights, I don’t think his Girardian analysis does justice to the entirety of the biblical witness. I also feel like he has an allergy to metaphysics and is forced to account for everything Christ does for us in sheerly psychological terms, which seems reductionistic to me.

Picked up a copy of Gerhard Forde’s Justification by Faith – A Matter of Death and Life for a quarter at a church yard sale. This is vintage Forde – pithy, direct and committed above all to the Reformation insight of justification by faith. Forde stresses the language of death and resurrection as a necessary complement to the more forensic “legal” language we often use to talk about justification. I also read Carl Braaten’s Justification: The Article by Which the Church Stands or Falls wherein Braaten makes a surprisingly (to me, anyway) robust defense of justification by faith alone. I say surprisingly because of what appeared to me to be his move to a more “catholic” position in recent years. Taken together these two books provide a good picture of what commitment to the principles of the Reformation can look like in the contemporary theological and ecumenical scene.

Right now I’m working on Reza Aslan’s No god but God, which is both a history of Islam and an argument for a more pluralistic understanding of Islam. Extremely informative and well-written, though at times one does get the feeling that Aslan is whitewashing a bit. He essentially shrugs off Muhammad’s military conquests with “that’s the way things were done then” and gives a rather idyllic picture of Christian and Jewish minorities under Islamic rule. Still, a very interesting book and I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes with his argument for why Islamic militants have Islam wrong.

JPII and Gerhard Forde on the Scandal of the Cross

I have this feeling that I’ve posted on this before at the old blog, but I was flipping through Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope this weekend, and found him to have some illuminating things to say about the mystery of the Cross.

The book is written in a kind of Q&A format with the questions offered by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. In response to a question about the problem of suffering, the Pope gives an interpretation of the meaning of the Cross that is in some ways the reverse of the view that Jesus’s death is a way of satisfying God:

In the preceding questions you addressed the problem precisely: Was putting His Son to death on the Cross necessary for the salvation of humanity?

Given our present discussion, we must ask ourselves: Could it have been different? Could God have justified Himself before human history, so full of suffering, without placing Christ’s Cross at the center of that history? Obviously, one response could be that God does not need to justify Himself to man. It is enough that He is omnipotent. From this perspective everything He does or allows must be accepted. This is the position of the biblical Job. But God, who besides being Omnipotence is Wisdom and-to repeat once again-Love, desires to justify Himself to mankind. He is not the Absolute that remains outside of the world, indifferent to human suffering. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, a God who shares man’s lot and participates in his destiny. This brings to light another inadequacy, the completely false image of God which the Enlightenment accepted uncritically. With regard to the Gospel, this image certainly represented a step backward, not in the direction of a better knowledge of God and the world, but in the direction of misunderstanding them.

No, absolutely not! God is not someone who remains only outside of the world, content to be in Himself all-knowing and omnipotent. His wisdom and omnipotence are placed, by free choice, at the service of creation. If suffering is present in the history of humanity, one understands why His omnipotence was manifested in the omnipotence of humiliation on the Cross. The scandal of the Cross remains the key to the interpretation of the great mystery of suffering, which is so much a part of the history of mankind.

Even contemporary critics of Christianity are in agreement on this point. Even they see that the crucified Christ is proof of God’s solidarity with man in his suffering. God places Himself on the side of man. He does so in a radical way: “He emptied himself, / taking the form of a slave, / coming in human likeness; / and found human in appearance, / he humbled himself, / becoming obedient to death, / even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). Everything is contained in this statement. All individual and collective suffering caused by the forces of nature and unleashed by man’s free will-the wars, the gulags, and the holocausts: the Holocaust of the Jews but also, for example, the holocaust of the black slaves from Africa.

I say this reverses the common understanding of the Cross because, instead of seeing the Crucifixion as the means by which humanity is able to satisfy God’s justice or wrath, it portrays God as, in a sense, seeking to justify himself before humanity, by demonstrating that he is a God of love.

The Pope goes on to say:

God is always on the side of the suffering. His omnipotence is manifested precisely in the fact that He freely accepted suffering. He could have chosen not to do so. He could have chosen to demonstrate His omnipotence even at the moment of the Crucifixion. In fact, it was proposed to Him: “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not accept that challenge. The fact that He stayed on the Cross until the end, the fact that on the Cross He could say, as do all who suffer: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34), has remained in human history the strongest argument. If the agony on the Cross had not happened, the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.
Yes! God is Love and precisely for this He gave His Son, to reveal Himself completely as Love. Christ is the One who “loved to the end” (Jn 13:1). “To the end” means to the last breath. “To the end” means accepting all the consequences of man’s sin, taking it upon Himself. This happened exactly as prophet Isaiah affirmed: “It was our infirmities that he bore, /We had all gone astray like sheep, / each following his own way; / But the Lord laid upon him / the guilt of us all” (Is 53:4-6).

The Man of Suffering is the revelation of that Love which “endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7), of that Love which is the “greatest” (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). It is the revelation not only that God is Love but also the One who “pours out love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (cf. Rom 5:5). In the end, before Christ Crucified, the man who shares in redemption will have the advantage over the man who sets himself up as an unbending judge of God’s actions in his own life as well as in that of all humanity.

Thus we find ourselves at the center of the history of salvation. The judgment of God becomes a judgment of man. The divine realm and the human realm of this event meet, cross, and overlap. Here we must stop. From the Mount of the Beatitudes, the road of the Good News leads to Calvary, and passes through Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Transfiguration. The difficulty and the challenge of understanding the meaning of Calvary is so great that God Himself wanted to warn the apostles of all that would have to happen between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

This is the definitive meaning of Good Friday: Man, you who judge God, who order Him to justify Himself before your tribunal, think about yourself, if you are not responsible for the death of this condemned man, if the judgment of God is not actually a judgment upon yourself. Consider if this judgment and its result-the Cross and then the Resurrection-are not your only way to salvation. (all emphasis mine)

I see a certain similarity between what John Paul says here and what the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde has written about the work of Christ. God’s “problem,” says Forde, is how to be a God of love for us when we won’t have it. We are the problem, the ones who need to be reconciled to God.

Forde writes:

Why does God abandon Jesus to be murdered by us? The answer, it would seem, must lie in that very unconditional love and mercy he intends to carry out in act. God, I would think we can assume, knows full well that he is a problem for us. He knows that unconditional love and mercy is “the end” of us, our conditional world. He knows that to have mercy on whom he will have mercy can only appear as frightening, as wrath, to such a world. He knows we would have to die to all we are before we could accept it. But he also knows that that is our only hope, our only salvation. So he refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism. He can indeed be that, and is that apart from the work of Christ. But he refuses ultimately to be that. Thus, precisely so as not to be the wrathful God we seem bent on having, he dies for us, “gets out of the way” for us. Unconditional love has no levers in a conditional world. He is obedient unto death, the last barrier, the last condition we cannot avoid, “that the scriptures might be fulfilled”—that God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. As “God of wrath” he submits to death for us; he knows he must die for us. That is the only way he can be for us absolutely, unconditionally. But then, of course, there must be resurrection to defeat that death, lest our conditionalism have the last word. (Forde, Caught in the Act)

Both John Paul and Forde see the rvelation of God as love simultaneously as a judgment upon humanity. Perfect love enters our world and is caught in the net of human perfidy, beaten, mocked, tortured, and ultimately killed. And yet, in the Resurrection Love has the last word. The Cross is the inevitable outcome of God’s determination to be a God of Love, a determination that our sin is unable to defeat.