Monday, October 17, 2011

The redemption of Christ: was his death necessary?

Recently, it has been reported that the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina received a Teaching Elder (minister of Word and Sacrament) who does not believe Jesus died for our sins. This is not unusual in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). (See "Did Jesus Die for the Sins of Humanity, Or Not?)

In a similar way, in the Sacramento Presbytery, well over a year ago, we voted for a teaching elder who was uncertain if Christ needed to die. When I asked the Teaching Elder if he believed that the death of Christ was necessary he was unable to answer my question.  I have written elsewhere about this, but as I left the meeting early a retired Teaching Elder, which we had also just voted in, grabbed me by the arm and asked how I would have answered my question. When I said with a “yes,” he started arguing with me. These are just a few examples of a growing problem.

In 2002 I offered a paper for a workshop at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Ministries to New Religions entitled “The Cross: New Religions, New Theologies and the Only Difference in a Pluralistic Society.” Since that time new books and differing theologians have emerged pushing the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross if instigated by the Father would be child abuse.
One book I recently wrote a review of “Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation,” among its many heresies, defames the atonement of Christ. Another book not nearly so problematic yet still with problems is “Love, Violence, and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ.” The former book is published by the Westminster John Knox Press, a publishing arm of the PC (U.S.A.).

The problems are immense. I am posting in parts my essay, with the reminder that it was written in 2002.

The Cross: New Religions, New Theologies and the Only Difference in a Pluralistic Society.

Recently, in her address to the 2002 Covenant Conference,[*] Anna Case-Winters, Professor of Theology at McCormick Theological Seminary, suggests that for our atonement, “‘The incarnation’ would be enough!” She also advocates for the theological position of Abelard, the medieval scholastic who held a position of atonement referred to as moral influence or example. That is, the death of Christ on the cross becomes an example of the willingness to suffer for others and for that reason Jesus Christ is followed and loved. [1]

Other proponents of this view of the cross and salvation were Socinus, a sixteenth century theologian who also denied the Trinity, and Friedrich Schleiermacher the father of nineteenth century liberal theology. [2]Pelagius is seen as an early anticipation of this view, since he believed humanity capable of living up to God’s requirements of holiness. At present, some contemporary theologians are attempting to get rid of the meaning of the cross in far more radical ways. Delores S. Williams, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, in her book, Sisters in the Wilderness: the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, writes, “People do not have to attach sacred validation to a bloody cross in order to be redeemed or to be Christians.”

Going further, Carter Heyward, Professor of Theology at Episcopal Divinity School, pictures atonement on the cross as a feature of a violent aspect of patriarchal Christianity. She writes:
The deity we must reject is the one whose power over us is imagined to be his love, the god who morally can destroy us. Such a concept of deity is evil—a betrayal itself of our power in mutual relation—in a world being torn to pieces by violence done in the names of gods who demand blood sacrifice. Such god-images feed twisted psychospiritualities that normalize sadistic and masochistic dynamics, rape and intimate violence, abuse of children, relationships of domination and control, violence against people and all creatures, and wars justified as holy.

Contrary to these distorted views of the cross and atonement I wish to hold up the orthodox view and show how it is in reality the central difference in a world of diverse religions both old and new. My central theme is that Christ’s atonement on the cross is the place where evil is expelled from religious belief; that where the cross is emphasized in its true biblical meaning there is true transformation.

I also want to emphasize that all religions, including Christianity, hold within their traditions the seeds of evil. Where the cross loses its meaning there Christianity itself stands in danger of being overcome by the evil within humanity. I will begin by examining the biblical and historical views of atonement. I will look at the potential for evil in religion including Christianity and explain the importance of the cross in addressing the new religions and the new theologies of our time.

This entails explaining how Christ’s death on the cross is God’s answer not only for our salvation but cuts through the violence of human attempts to connect with God. I will show how both ruthless violence and sloppy sentimentality in religion are answered by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

In the next posting I will look at sacrifice in the Old and New Testaments and how Christians should understand sacrifice.

* The Covenant Network is an independent group within the Presbyterian Church USA whose members advocate for the ordination of LGBTQ persons  and for Progressive Theology.

[1]Anna Case-Winters, “Who Do You Say That I Am? Believing In Jesus Christ in the 21st Century,” Address to the 2002 Covenant Conference, November 9, 2002,

[2]For information on Socinus see: I. Breward, “Socinus and Socinianism,” New Dictionary of Theology, The Master Reference Collection, editors Sinclair B. Ferguson, et al, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press 1988) 649.


Greg Scandlen said...

Bravo. This is all so basic -- one might say fundamental -- that it is small wonder people are confused with leaders like these.

I recently wrote a review of Tim Keller's "The Reason for God." In part I wrote --

The (True) Story of the Cross.

Keller says he often encounters people who think the story of the crucifixion makes God seem like a blood-thirsty tyrant. Why would a loving God demand a human sacrifice? He responds by reminding these doubters that Jesus is God. God did not sacrifice someone else, he sacrificed himself. And this was the greatest love of all.

Whenever we love someone, we accept and absorb their flaws. That is the nature of love – the other person’s problems become our problems. We share in their joys, but also in their misery. A relationship without that level of intimacy is not love. So it was with Jesus. He loves us and so he has absorbed our sins into himself. We are too weak to carry the burden so he carried it for us.

Similarly with forgiveness. To forgive a wrong means absorbing the cost of the wrong yourself. Keller says if someone wrecks your car you may forgive him for it, but the car still needs to be fixed. The cost doesn’t disappear, it must still be paid. But if the wrongdoer is unable to pay for the damage you will absorb the cost yourself.

We are unable to pay for our wrongdoings, so Jesus Christ has paid the bill for us.

The Reality of the Resurrection

Here Keller starts getting to the heart of the matter. Jesus Christ was killed by man, buried in a tomb, and rose from the dead, not as a spirit or a ghost, but as a flesh and blood man. Keller writes –

"If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead."

Did he? Keller walks through the evidence and concludes –

“Nothing in history can be proven the way we can prove something in a laboratory. However, the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact much more fully attested to than most other events of ancient history we take for granted.”

A word on “proof.” There are all kinds of proof. There is scientific proof (although even there theories are rarely considered proven, they are just verified or supported until other evidence disproves them) and there is legal proof, which in the case of criminal law is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and in civil law is “the preponderance of the evidence.” Almost everything we believe to be true is based on one of these standards.

I don’t “know” for certain that Africa exists but I believe it does because of all the people I have met or read about who have been there and say it does. I am relying on their testimony and they have no reason to lie. And so it was with the Resurrection. There were hundreds of witnesses who testified to it, and even then there were doubters. Thomas said:

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25)

And so he did, and this too was witnessed. Like my friends who have seen Africa, these witnesses had no reason to lie. In fact, they had ample reason to deny what they had seen. The resurrection is as “proven” as anything can be.

Greg Scandlen
Waynesboro, PA

Viola Larson said...

Bravo, to you Greg-That is great and I like the way you use Keller in making your point. And it is basic, but like the Gospel of John deep enough that the greatest mind can flourish in its midst.