Monday, July 27, 2015

Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed

I've recently read Adam J. Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2015). I quite enjoyed it. I think this is one of the best books on the atonement that I have read in my time. What I particularly appreciate about Johnson's work is his inclusive methodology: rather than looking at atonement theories as competitors, seeking the one definitive way of speaking about the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ, he instead insists that we see them as complementary analyses of the manifold salvation we have been given. Theories such as Christus Victor (which perhaps is better understood as a broad group of theories, rather than a single theory) and penal substitution and moral exemplarism are -- to various degrees, and in various formulations -- complementary and accurate (though not exclusively comprehensive) descriptions of the way in which Christ's work saves us.

One of Johnson's central metaphors to describe is work is that of riches. The salvation of God in Jesus Christ is a treasury of riches to be mined by the theologian for her own benefit and for the benefit of the church. Johnson remarks that it is also quite difficult (if not impossible) to discern which among [theories of atonement] is pre-eminent (3). Rather than supposing that a single theory underlies and informs all the rest, Johnson maintains that the theories complement one another and should not be ordered in a hierarchy. He says: We reject the pursuit of the one theory of the atonement that is at the heart of the biblical witness (5).

One might wonder whether this is quite possible. For example, Johnson points to Athanasius's explanation of why Christ died by crucifixion: this was so that, through his outstretched arms, he might symbolically prefigure the union of the Jews and the Gentiles in his embrace, forming a new humanity (cf. Eph 2.11ff.). So Johnson concludes: Christ died so as to reconcile all peoples with God and with each other (9). Certainly that is true, but it is not obvious how his death, in itself, accomplishes this; further explanation is needed. My suspicion is that further explanation would entail describing some aspect of Christ's death in line with a certain theory of atonement -- for example, he dies cursed by the Law and yet in obedience to it, so that with his resurrection the age of the Law has passed; he recapitulates the history of the Jewish race and also of humanity, so that with his resurrection, he assumes a resurrected state and existence which lies beyond the domain of the Law; etc. Here then it would seem that some aspects of the atonement are clearly more basic than others; some theories derive from others. This doesn't by itself prove that there is a single base theory of the atonement, but it is suggestive -- at least to me.

Johnson is right to note that various atonement theories have been affirmed by theologians throughout the whole history of the Church: ...we have theologians from the early, medieval and Reformation periods of the Church, each holding to a range of explanations of the atonement (4), Athanasius offers something of a satisfaction theory, Calvin speaks of the exemplary elements of Christ's death on the cross, and so on. It is facile and ultimately inadequate to suppose that the patristic sources all held to a Christus Victor model, the medievals and Reformers to a satisfaction model, etc. The actual history is much more complex, and these various aspects and understandings of the atonement have been affirmed from the start.

I especially appreciated Johnson's discussion of the nature of faith in relation to the theologian's task. He writes: According to Augustine, faith is by nature a relationship involving a motion towards its object through understanding or 'full vision' . . . Faith is the kind of thing that moves towards a goal -- in this case, movement towards God, through knowledge and understanding. Faith embraces understanding because that is its end, its goal (14). Thus the theologian engages in theology and tries to mine the riches of the atonement of Christ because he believes in it, and therefore because he always desires a fuller understanding. While I am not an expert on Polanyi's epistsemology, it seems to me here that Johnson appropriates a point from Polanyi's thought on scientific methodology: a prior faith [in some theory, some hypothesis, some vague intuition of the truth] leads one to further investigation. On the other hand, Johnson writes against those who would reject the theological task: The alternative, to rest content with what little knowledge of God we have, would be to violate the very nature oft he faith we have been given -- to disdain the complex simplicity, which we are offered to delight in both now and in eternity (15).

There is very much worthwhile material in Johnson's book, more than I can deal with in a short blog post. But as a universalist reader, one thing in particular stuck out to me: Johnson regularly emphasizes the universality of the atonement, drawing his principal understanding of the event from Paul's words at Col 1.15ff. and 2 Cor 5.19. The atonement is indeed cosmic, affecting the angels, humanity, the animals, and perhaps even the demons in some ways. All things have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ -- that is Paul's gospel, and that is how Johnson understands the atonement work of God in its most basic form.

I think some remarks of Johnson's are quite suggestive of universalism, though certainly he doesn't ever come out and affirm the doctrine himself. For example, Johnson writes about God's self-imposed commitment to the creation as one of the motivations for which God incarnated and worked atonement. Indeed, though we often think that the atonement was done for humankind's sake, Johnson argues persuasively that there is also a sense in which the atonement was done for God's sake. Drawing from Athanasius and others, Johnson suggests that God's own character and identity were in trouble because of the apparent failure of his purposes vis-a-vis the creation. God had created humankind to share in the life of the Trinity, to share in his identity, but humankind had gone astray in sin. Thus God's very identity and integrity as our Creator is in danger. Johnson writes:

God is deeply affected by our sin, for the plight of the creature, without ceasing to be the real and deadly concern of the creature, is simultaneously the plight of the creator -- just as the plight of a rebellious child is simultaneously the plight of the parents that love her. In the act of creating, God puts his honor, power and wisdom on the line, both to be glorified and to be tested. Sin brought into question not only God's justice, but his wisdom and patience . . . in fact, the whole character of God -- for God's goal was to share the fullness of his character with us in such a way that we might know and rejoice in it. To fail to share himself in this way, would be for God to fail in terms of his freely expanded identity -- the identity he took on as our Creator, as the God who covenanted with us, and as the God who names himself by his actions with and towards us. But as Thomas reminds us, God's purpose cannot fail! (148).

I think this line of reasoning is very fascinating and very compelling. It is reminiscent of Jon D. Levenson's work in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (1988). Notice that it is a short step from this line of reasoning to the doctrine of universal salvation: for if God's purpose was for all human persons to enjoy life with him, and if his purpose remains this albeit mediated through the Godman Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 1.10), then it would seem a failure on his part and a compromise of his self-expanded identity for God not to accomplish this.

There can be no quick and easy (or rather facile) appeals to human freedom at this juncture, either. For if God's purpose and identity was compromised by the first free sin, then why should it be any different in the case of later free sins? On the other hand, if human freedom is always a condition of God's purposes being accomplished, and if human freedom means that God cannot ensure the outcome he wants, then God could have refused to atone for the salvation of human persons in the first place and his identity and purposes and wisdom would not have been compromised. In other words, if God's identity and purposes are not compromised by the free rejection of his salvific work in Christ, then neither were they compromised by the free rejection of life with him in paradise by the first humans -- in which case this can no longer be a serious motivation for the atonement.

You regularly read people saying that there is no biblical justification for the doctrine of universal salvation, that we have no basis to hope for all people to be saved, etc. Totally apart from the universalist exegesis of certain key texts (e.g., Rom 5, 1 Cor 15, Col 1.15ff., etc.), we can see in Johnson's book that the doctrine of the atonement itself -- with all its richness and variegated splendor -- strongly suggests it, perhaps even directly entailing it. So I heartily recommend Johnson's book to those interested in the question of universalism.

Perhaps Johnson won't appreciate the twist I've taken with this book review here. But on the other hand, he concludes his book with a meditation on the question of reading theologians with whom we disagree. He finds this project useful for a number of reasons, one of which is: we may inadvertently develop lines of thought the connections of which we do not fully appreciate (182). He also says: this makes theological works with which we disagree one of the most promising avenues for further theological development, for such works are far more likely to take up lines of thought we minimize or fail to see altogether (183). So consider my universalist musings and appropriations of Johnson's work an invitation to think further about the implications of what he has written. :-)

In general, I find Johnson's work to be eminently worthwhile. I will certainly make use of it in my future studies, and refer back to it regularly to clarify my own thought about various riches within the treasury that is Christ's atonement. There is so much material in the book that I have not even mentioned: on the connection between atonement and the Trinity, on the atonement in light of the whole life of Christ (pre-crucifixion, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension); on atonement and its consequences for the whole of the created order (angels, humans, animals, demons); etc. I recommend the book with enthusiasm to all others who are interested in the question of atonement theology.

No comments: