Thoughts on the Cross, Atonement, & Jesus

I happened across the blog of an author tonight whom I had never heard of before. I recognized some of the names associated in one way or another with the author so I hung around for a bit and did some reading. I discovered this author had recently published a new book he calls Rediscovering the God Imagination: Reconstructing a Whole New Christianity.

The author is Jonathan Brink. I have never heard of him before, as I said, but I did recognize the names of his endorsers and his detractors. Having had my own issues in the past with Ken Silva, I can say that to an extent Mr Brink has my sympathies. I suppose one could say that, as a rule, if Ken Silva is one of your detractors then I will give you the benefit of the doubt and welcome to the club.

The problem is that Silva is an equal opportunity judge and jury and Brink set himself up by using the words ‘reconstructing’ and ‘new’ alongside the word ‘christianity.’ I’d like to give a balanced, quick review of the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his blog.

I took the time to read Brink’s 26-page sample chapter* that he has graciously posted at his website because, well, that’s what I do. I read. I’m a little on the fence regarding some of what I read (and I was also a little taken aback when I read in the comment section that he hadn’t read The Everlasting Man by GK Chesterton–even though that comment was written, evidently, two years ago) and I’m not able to make a complete judgment about the contents of the book. He begins by reminding us that we live in an age of questions–questions about the very traditions upon which we have nursed as Christians. He opens by writing this:

But what is the inherent nature of the Gospel? What actually happened in the Garden of Eden? In order to follow Jesus, it would seem obvious that we would want to know exactly what Jesus is doing on the cross, what problem he is solving, and what it means to humanity. Yet there is no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel. Scholars and theologians have been wrestling with this tension within the Christian tradition for roughly 1,700 years.

I think people are going to have problems with this. I really do. I strongly disagree there is ‘no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel.’ Yes, indeed, scholars have wrestled (and rightly so) with Scripture and definitions. And yes, indeed, there are a lot of theories about the implications of these beliefs. But the basic suppositions of the Gospel, even at the most basic, creedal level, are not really challenged (and probably shouldn’t be). Christians still believe Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the grave (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-11).

I am not so sure, and even Brink equivocates just a bit, that we need to seriously rethink 1,700 years worth of theological reflection. He has questions about whether or not many of the theological formulas that have been created during this period of time actually address the correct question. Thus he writes:

This book suggests a provocative possibility: much of our historical understanding of the problem is wrong. The basic assumptions we make about what is happening in the Garden of Eden are skewed by the very nature of the problem. We locate the problem in the wrong place and end up trying to resolve a problem, which doesn’t actually exist. (p 6 of the pdf sample chapter)

I suppose that in order for new theories to be put forward, the historical understandings have to be cast in this light. We cannot suggest a better way forward unless we cast aspersion on all that has led to this point. This is a very post-modern way of going about things and it is very popular among many so-called emergent theologians and preachers (although I don’t think Brink categorizes himself as either). Challenging ideas is fine; I do so all the time. Suggesting that they are altogether wrong–well, there are a lot of preachers and theologians who will abandon Brink at this point.

Brink also has to do some re-working of the first three chapters of Genesis–which he does (see p 16-19 of the downloadable pdf). Here I believe Brink asks some important questions, and I am curious as to how he will answer them. I have no problem with questions being asked and, to be sure, I am always thrilled when someone, anyone, actually opens their Bible and wrestles with the story–a chore that many who are firmly ensconced in those 1,700 years of theological strictures refuse to undertake since it is much easier to whip out a quote from Calvin or Spurgeon to bolster one’s position: Calvin said it; I believe it; that settles it.

Yeah, that works.

As I neared the end of Brink’s 26 pages, I came across this paragraph:

And finally the story presents the atonement – how God is actually reconciling humanity to God. To understand the human story means confronting our traditional notions of what is happening on the cross, to ask, “Where is the problem located?” Once we answer this question, a new understanding of the atonement opens up. We are invited to discover the depth of what is happening, to shudder at the sheer magnitude of love it reveals, and embrace it with open arms. The story reveals God’s central concern is not a punitive sense of justice for breaking a law, but an overriding concern for the consequence of death. (p 21 of the downloadable pdf)

There’s more to it than this, and I don’t want to be unfair to Brink, but here I might be disinclined to go all the way with his idea. The problem as I see it is that we don’t necessarily need to confront the traditional understandings of the cross and we do not need a new understanding of the atonement. I have no problems with the idea that there is more than one ‘theory of atonement’. Nor, for that matter, do I mind someone opening our eyes to another aspect of God’s work in Jesus. What I object to is the idea that all those theories that went before need replacing or scuttling. Maybe Brink is not being so drastic, but it’s hard not to think he is. And, to be sure, he will have a lot of work to do in order to convince people that 1,700 years of theological reflection have been wrong and that, aha!, he suddenly has it all figured out.

That’s a tall order for anyone. I’m genuinely interested to see how he pulls it off, and how he resolves it for a new generation of pilgrims.

A better approach, I think, is to see all those theories (of atonement) that went before as bits and parts of a comprehensive atonement that God enacted in Christ. None of them is comprehensive, none is exclusive of the others. Together they all help explain what God was doing in Jesus and what he is doing in us. I agree wholeheartedly with Brink that the cross expresses God’s concern for the consequences of death; yes, say it so. But the cross dealt with what caused death (sin); resurrection dealt with death. Or, so says the apostle,

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21, NIV)

I will be interested to see how Brink treats the Resurrection of Jesus since it was only mentioned once in the 26 pages I read and even then it had nothing, necessarily, to do with Jesus’s Resurrection. I hope he has a very large section on Resurrection because in the sort of undertaking he is proposing it will surely be necessary.

I also agree with Brink that we need to be set free from religion. Too many Christians are far too content to live in a scripted religious experience where everything is contained inside neat little compartments that never ever mix together and share ideas or educate or inform one another. Religion is typically what destroys preachers who have been called by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel, who have been called to tell and retell the story.

Frankly, I’m not sure we need a new Christianity–maybe, better, we just need people who are willing to live the story already there (you know, the ‘take up your cross, deny yourself, follow me’ kind of stuff). Frankly, I am not so sure we need to reconstruct a new anything since we are utterly incapable of doing so anyhow (no mention of the Holy Spirit in those 26 pages either; I realize he couldn’t include everything in 26 pages so I am not being overly critical, I’m just saying…)

Brink seems rather intent on redefining some of the terms we use in the church, but I don’t know that such redefining is necessary either. And don’t get me wrong, I understand there is a disconnect between what the Bible says and the way many Christians live. I get it; really I do. I was fired by a church in whom that very disconnect was incarnate in an unimaginable, undeniable, and epic way.

I also understand that suffering and pain and injustice need to be addressed at a much deeper level than preachers have dared to think necessary and possible in the past. The so-called tried and true Sunday school clichés first uttered by John Calvin and perpetuated by the Neo-Reformed scholars of this age no longer work on a people who have questioned and will continue to question everything. One of the great aspects of my generation’s rebelliousness towards authority is the freedom to question, challenge, everything. In other words, you will not control me, you will not tell me what to do or believe; I will figure it out for myself, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, thank you very much.

It may be that I’ll end up agreeing with you or Calvin. It may be that I will reject you and Calvin (especially Calvin). But I will work that out on my own in the company of fellow pilgrims–if only I could find a group of pilgrims willing to live in the turmoil of the doubt that we call faith (see Matthew 28:17).

Brink will have no problem convincing some, will reap the scorn and hatred of others who are already convinced he is a heretic, and will, hopefully, find even more who will read what he says and shout ‘hooray!’ when they read something brilliant, will weep when they read something silly, and will search the Scripture when they come across something that challenges their understanding of Jesus, Christianity, and faith.

Brink claims to have gone back to Scripture in order to write this book. He also claims that much of what he saw in Scripture just didn’t seem to line up with some of the traditional teachings. Therefore I believe it is equally fair and important for those who read this book to go back to Scripture also and see if what Brink has written squares up with what Scripture, the Bible, says. From what I read in 26 sample pages, I think there are going to be some issues.

But we can give him a read and test that for ourselves.

*my reflections concern only the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his website.

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