Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Atonement is the Worst Heresy

"I think the atonement is the worst heresy ever perpetrated against Christianity, and it is a way that the tradition has betrayed Jesus Christ."

That's a direct quotation from theologian Rita Nakashima Brock. I came across it in a video sample for "Saving Jesus," a DVD-curriculum produced by "Living the Questions."

Concerning the "Saving Jesus" program, here's what the "Living the Questions" website says:

Ever feel like Jesus has been kidnapped by the Christian Right or the Secular Left? Saving Jesus is a revolutionary DVD-based small group exploration of Jesus Christ for the third millennium. ... Join Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox, Amy-Jill Levine, James Forbes and a host of others for a conversation around the relevance of Jesus Christ for today.

I'm not a fan of the Borg-Crossan-Pagels-Spong contingent, nor do I find Matthew Fox to be "one of the most prophetic voices of our time". Nevertheless, I agree that the Church needs to offer something more intellectually open and grounded in sound scholarship than some of the stuff coming from the Religious Right.

But not like this. Not at the price of jettisoning foundational tenets of the Christian faith.

In one sweeping statement, Rita Nakashima Brock doesn't merely blow satisfaction and penal substitution theories of the atonement out of the water. By making such a categorical condemnation, she jettisons any conception of the atonement at all as a "heresy" that betrays Jesus. This means rejecting, not just any particular theological theory of the atonement, but also the whole narrative trajectory found in each of the Gospels, in the theology of the apostle Paul, and, indeed, in the New Testament as a whole - not to mention the faith of the Church as articulated in creeds, confessions, and liturgies for the past 2,000 years.

If Brock is right, then one of the first things we need to do is jettison the Eucharistic prayers in The Book of Common Prayer. Note this language from Rite I:

All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world ... (p. 334).

Rite II does not adequately improve anything. Consider, for example, this language from Eucharistic Prayer A:

... when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us ... (p. 362).
He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world (p. 362).

Note also this language from Eucharistic Prayer C:

By his blood, he reconciled us. By his wounds, we are healed (p. 370).

And then there's the language of the Institution Narratives ("this is my body," "this is my blood"), language which makes little religious sense apart from some idea that Jesus' death is not merely tragic, but also redemptive.

If praying shapes believing, and if Brock is right, then the Prayer Book liturgies shape us to pray heresy that betrays Jesus because we pray the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross every time we gather for the Eucharist.

I don't see anything particularly "progressive" about "saving Jesus" by rejecting the Church's faith about who Jesus is and why Jesus died. Surely there's a better way to be "progressive" and to make the faith "relevant" than this!


TonyTheProf said...

Have you read any of NT Wright on the atonement? He seems to come across with a much better theology than the Living the Questions lot.

Bryan Owen said...

I've not read Wright on the atonement, TonyTheProf, so thanks for the link. I like the other things by Wright that I've read, so I look forward to taking a look at this.