Hamilton on the atonement

I was watching Adam Hamilton’s sermon on the meaning of Jesus’ death the other day.

 

Here is what I heard. First, all theories of the atonement are metaphors. Taking them as literal is an error. It is poetry not economics or juridical practice. Second, the atonement is primarily about how the cross changes us. It is God’s message to inspire and motivate us.

That is not all that was said, of course, but those were the two main ideas I heard. What about you?

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Speaking of the cross

The church catholic has never designated any single theory of the atonement as orthodox. Or so we are often told. Nonetheless, those of us who claim the sermons of John Wesley as doctrinal standards do have some guidance on how to speak of the work of Christ.

Here are Wesley’s words in the sermon “Justification by Faith.”

And as such it was that “he bore our griefs,” “the Lord laying upon him the iniquities of us all.” Then was he “wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities.” “He made his soul an offering for sin:” He poured out his blood for the transgressors: He “bare our sins in his own body on the tree,” that by his stripes we might be healed: And by that one oblation of himself, once offered, he hath redeemed me and all mankind; having thereby “made a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Not really Wesley’s words, of course. Most of the passage is constructed from the words of scripture and the Anglican Articles of Religion.But the thrust of it all clearly plays in the realm of satisfaction, sacrifice, and substitute.

Oh wait, though. We don’t have to go to Wesley’s sermon for our language. We have it right in our own Articles of Religion.

The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifice of masses, in the which it is commonly said that the priest doth offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, is a blasphemous fable and dangerous deceit.

Or in our Confession of Faith:

We believe God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The offering Christ freely made on the cross is the perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, redeeming man from all sin, so that no other satisfaction is required.

My interpretation of this as a pastor and candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church is that my teaching and preaching is most faithful to my vocation in the UMC when I speak of the cross in these terms.

Lectionary blogging: Battle begins

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matthew 4:1-3, NIV)

I’ve been reading Gustaf Aulén’s classic book Christus Victor this week. I was not reading it to guide my study of this week’s gospel lectionary text, but it sure has set off some interesting resonances.

Aulén argued in his book that there are three broad types of atonement theories. The objective model, represented by Anselm and subsequent satisfaction and substitution theories, describes the primary focus of the atonement upward toward the Father. The cross is the place where the debt created by humanity’s sin is paid off.

The subjective model, first articulated by Abelard and widely influential in the West since the 19th century, describes the primary focus of the atonement downward to those of us at the feet of Jesus. The cross creates a change in us.

Against both of these models, Aulén argues for what he calls the “classic” theory, which he says goes back to the apostles. This theory views the atonement as an act in an unfolding dramatic conflict between God and the devil. We might think of it as a horizontal focus of atonement. The atonement defeats the devil.

I thought of the book while reading the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

By Aulén’s thinking, the temptation is really just the opening skirmish in a contest that will be carried forward all the way to the cross and the empty tomb. The testing in the desert is not merely about teaching us some responses to difficult life challenges. It is not merely validation of Jesus’ status as the unblemished one who can reset the scales of divine justice by his death. It is the start of a battle that will be fought, not with guns and bombs, but with weapons of the Spirit.

This is a reading of the text that passes through the cross, which therefore means it is shaped by our understanding of atonement. Whether that is a useful way to read and preach the text this week, I’m not certain. I’ll let the Spirit guide on that one.