Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, wrote an interesting piece on atonement theology, a week or so back. It is an interesting little piece published in the Guardian. I link it HERE .

Fraser is quite correctly critical of a particular kind of doctrine of the atonement, we might refer to as substitutionary. The idea is that God demands a sacrifice to restore right relationship with humanity and Jesus becomes that sacrifice. The formulation of this way of thinking about the atoning death of Jesus is much more complex and subtle, but this is the broad brush.

It is troubling for all the reasons Fraser mentions. It smacks of brutality and violence. It doesn’t portray God in a very positive light. In certain global quarters, it might even lend support to practices most of us would consider quite barbaric.

I am not sure, however, that it would be appropriate to divorce Christianity of the atoning death of Jesus on the cross of Good Friday. The scriptures clearly see Jesus death in sacrificial terms. Surely, Jesus death in the minds of the writers of the scriptures, and in my mind was “for us”. So there is a sense in which Christ is the sinless victim for a sinful humanity. I don’t think you can simply walk away from Christian history, teaching and the Bible.

That said, I don’t think we need to be forever tied to a particular vision of the meaning of sacrifice. Usually, ritual sacrifice denotes an unwilling victim to be the offering. In the case of Jesus, the scriptures portray a victim, conflicted, but having a choice. It seems that Jesus chose to accept his death in service of God. The Bible does not indicate Jesus death was a transaction. It speaks in terms of kenosis, the free pouring out of life by choice in service of God. St. Paul certainly speaks of his life in these sacrificial terms. The martyrs of the early Christian Church seemed to embrace this same vision of sacrifice.

Here in the west, we don’t care for sacrifice. We rightly reject the implications of ritual sacrifice. However, we don’t much care for the notion of kenosis either. Offering ourselves and accepting less is not our strong suit. God is not a hungry, blood thirsty beast, that tends to be our territory. Maybe what we need is a deeper grasp of the mystery of Jesus’ self- authenticating, self-sacrificing acceptance of the cost of love?

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