Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Postmodernity and the Atonement

posted by xscot mcknight

Along with many of my fellow bloggers, I grew up being told that Jesus died for my sins — in fact, that to die for my sins is the sole reason Jesus came to earth. Jesus’ death for us is the atonement, and there are a host of theories: Irenaeus’s recapitulation theory, the classical ransom theory, Anselm’s satisfaction of divine honor theory, Abelard’s exemplary theory (if a theory at all), the Reformers’ penal substitution theory, and Grotius’ governmental theory (which no one seems to care about any more at all — though I’ve thought at times someone ought to pick it up for a little fun).

I’ve been posting of late about the “posts” of postmodernity, and I want to offer you tonight a challenge to think about.

Here’s what we claim to be true: Jesus died for our sins and he rose for our justification (roughly Rom 4:25). I think it can be proven with historical methods (as if we needed them) that Jesus died; it can be demonstrated with pretty solid arguments — many have undertaken this task — that Jesus rose from the dead. It is not provable at the same level that he died, but his resurrection is the best explanation of the evidence.

Now, here’s the challenge: how do we go about proving that Jesus died for our sins? We know he died, but how do we prove that his death actually did something for our sins? To me, the entire issue of postmodernity presses in on this question and it is worth all of us looking at. To quote Anselm, “What do you think Boso?” (I pronounced that Bosso — but I’m unsure.)

To respond to me, you will have to sign in to blogspot.com. So far as I know they won’t be calling you on the phone trying to get you to buy roses or give money to the police or anything like that. But, because I have some potshots from Anonymous bloggers who think they are above decency when it comes to how to disagree with others, I have clicked one of those boxes to make sure only named people can sign up. Again, I am asking for decency here — disagreement is fine. Try to avoid lengthy responses. I’ll do what I can tomorrow to respond.



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ScottB

posted July 12, 2005 at 7:13 pm


First, I have to think through what you mean by prove here – you connected it with historical methods earlier, and I’m tempted to just punt at that point, because I’m not sure you can get much farther than demonstrating that the early church profoundly believed that to be the case, which isn’t at all the same thing.But I’m assuming that you’re going for something else here, something evidential – and at that point I think where I’d come down is that the demonstration of atonement is in a community that lives in the reality of atonement – life in the Spirit, serving one another in love, seeking justice, demonstrating love for the outcast and the enemy. I think the proof is in the body of Christ, when it lives in the Spirit.



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Ted Gossard

posted July 12, 2005 at 8:01 pm


Didn’t Paul have a “theory” of atonement in Romans 3:21-26 as well as a number of passages that tie Christ’s death and our sins together? He describes this as “the gospel…on which you have taken your stand” and “are saved” (1 Cor 15). And John the Baptist pointed out Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”- Jn 1. When you consider the OT sacrificial system, Jesus being the Lamb would mean the fulfillment of that system, dealing with our sins. Easy to see where substitution (in the place of, instead of) would be construed here.I’ve wondered in the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom by Jesus, and by Paul (end of Acts) how Paul would fit in the Jesus’ death/ sin part. Jesus and him crucified was certainly central in Paul’s mind and preaching, especially in seeing people come into God’s kingdom.



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Wags

posted July 12, 2005 at 8:47 pm


John’s testimony is compelling from his first words…”That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched…” It seems he sits upon the witness stand before the world to offer proof of what he saw, heard and touched. He is saying “I was a first-hand witness”. And then in 2:2 John states his claim to identify Jesus Christ, the Righteous One as “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”Proof of Jesus’ death for our sins may seem illusive, but I gain great conviction from the Beloved Apostle’s eyewitness account and testimony of intention – ‘that he (Jesus) died to atone for our sins.’



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Benjamin Myers

posted July 12, 2005 at 9:34 pm


Is it really clear that the postmodern situation demands or invites us to prove that Jesus died “for our sins”? Wouldn’t this kind of attempt to ground faith in reason have much more in common with Enlightenment (i.e. pre-postmodern) rationalism?



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Michael F. Bird

posted July 12, 2005 at 9:35 pm


Scot,I wrote my honours thesis on Rom. 4.25 – one of my favourite verses.Hmmm, tricky challenge. I guess there are two issues: (1) which theory of atonement is one trying prove? (2) what constitutes proof to a pomo that would convince them that Jesus died for our sins?



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Benjamin Myers

posted July 12, 2005 at 9:59 pm


Sorry, I posted my first paragraph separately by mistake (clicked “Publish” instead of “Preview”!). Here is the rest:Perhaps one hypothetical line of argument would be to indicate, on historical grounds, that Jesus was the quintessential man-for-others, and that his whole life-act (which includes his death) was an act of self-giving love. One could then at least infer that even in his death Jesus was the man-for-others, i.e., that his death was in some sense “for us”. But this line of argument would hardly lead to any specific theory of atonement. And, more importantly, it would hardly lead us (or our postmodern hearers) any closer to faith in the death of Jesus.It seems to me that the confession that Jesus died “for our sins” (both in the primitive Christian community and in our own postmodern situation) is always and only a confession of faith. And does faith require any extra or preliminary proof? Would it still be faith if it rested on “proof”?



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Ted Gossard

posted July 13, 2005 at 12:20 am


This post has been removed by the author.



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Ted Gossard

posted July 13, 2005 at 12:34 am


Benjamin, Wouldn’t it require faith on the part of Thomas to believe, even though he insisted at that point in seeing the resurrected Jesus for himself? (note Jn 20:27-29) Isn’t the faith inclusive of historical events? (1 Cor 15:1-8) Yet Jesus himself said that even if someone rises from the dead, there are those who will not believe. Faith itself must finally rest on God -and to do that must rest on God’s inscripturated revelation, right?I like the saying from Augustine and allusion to Scripture (a stronger or larger faith?): I believe, therefore I understand, or have understanding (Heb 11:1-3 and the rest of the ch). As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen me, yet have believed.”Interesting that Thomas’ faith came when he was in community, with the disciples. (Yet in Paul’s case, his faith did not come in that context, yet was confirmed right after that in community).



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Fernando

posted July 13, 2005 at 2:20 am


like other commentors, your request sounds like a call for a historical or evidential apologetic and I’m not sure a postmodern context calls for that. if we can proove anything, it is in the sense of testing it out in shared experience of faith and the transformation that can bring.we need to use proof more in the sense of what happens to bread and less in the sense of what happens to theories.



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Michael F. Bird

posted July 13, 2005 at 4:34 am


1. Bravo to Ben. I think he raises some good points.2. After a moment of confusion I’ve had a brain wave and due to the length of the wave I posted it at euangelion.



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John Frye

posted July 13, 2005 at 5:13 am


Scot, So far I’ve read, we can’t prove it; it’s a matter of faith. We believe it because the Bible says it. Jesus’ example as a man-for-others points to him dying for our sins. Yet, I’m with the Scott-the first one to post–the proof of our sins being dealt with in Jesus’ death is the existence of a new community whose lives demonstrate a restored connection to God, to one another and to the world. The proof of the statement “Jesus died for our sins” is the resulting reality of that statement: the New Israel, people who are as inclusive and embracing of others (even in their sins) as God in Christ was inclusive and embracing of us.



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Rob

posted July 13, 2005 at 5:47 am


I think one interesting thing is what exactly the original audience of Jesus would have understand “forgiveness of sins” to mean. First century Judiaism was looking for the Messiah, the one who would return them from exile, re-establish the Temple, and destroy their pagan enemies. They believed that their sins are what kept them in exile. Thus, the messiah would have to forgive those sins in order to return them from exile. Jesus fulfilled the messianic role, but not in the way the second temple Jews expected. He forgave their sins through His death, established Himself, and all who would follow Him, as the dwelling place of God (not the temple), and taught destruction of “enemies” through love and the Kingdom way of living. I say all that to say that I don’t believe Jesus had in mind “my” sins, but His death resulted in a return of exile and bondage for Israel and all who follow Him. An aspect of that freedom being the forgivness of sins.



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Sue

posted July 13, 2005 at 6:46 am


–Dont have much time to flesh this out but I’m thinking that the proof is in the observation of a new creature.(2 Cor 5:17, Gal. 6:15) If in fact there has been effective atonement there will also be observable restoration of culture and humanity toward its original design- – far surpassing what those without Christ can accomplish in their own strength and will. Sorry to comment and run. Perhaps other visitors can flesh this thought out if it is at all a worthy one.-Sue



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Pneu Mystic

posted July 13, 2005 at 8:33 am


Stumbled across you somehow. Nice thoughts. I’ve recently finished reading Endo’s Silence, a Japanese rendition of the value of Calvary. You might find something useful in that narrative. My two cents:In proof, you must consider who you are proving to. Different audiences demand different points to be made, different logic to be applied. Walking in the life of Paul shows those kind of variations, from Athens to Corinth to Jerusalem to Rome. But what is the value of proof ultimately? The greater redemptive work of God is in personal transformation. So each individual proves the resurrection of Christ in what has been brought to life within themselves, the fruit of the Spirit’s presence in them. Proofs outside of our own personal transformation serve some purpose, are even required I guess by the great commission, yet do we not always default back to the testimony of how God changes us as an individual? In a pomo context, embodiment supercedes societal logic I think.



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jean

posted July 13, 2005 at 8:46 am


Rob, I appreiciate your thoughts. There again here is a place where the termonology and words of a current meta-narrative will not serve us well. If sins are those things I do, or do not do, rather than ignorance and absence of His divine presence then we almost can’t help but look at the forgeiveness of sins and proof thereof as something puntilliar, and is easily proof texted ,which is the ulitmate kiss of death in postmodernity. “Jesus Lived and then died to forgive me, after all thats what the Scripture says”. Our articulation in ANY culture would call for more that that. If one looks at sin in terms of what the death of Jesus did in order to set in motion the possibilities of a relationship with the Trinity, one that leads us down a road of transformation, then it sheds different rays on our understanding, or I should say need to understand “Forgiveness of sins”. Is this aspect of my sin, primary? or perhaps secondary to my awareness and or relationship with the Trinity? A current meta-narrative would say things have their proper order.I have gone around about this on the ooze, as well as in my living room. It is much to squsihy and feels very uncomfortable to some justification sensitivities.Just may thoughts as usual.Jean,or Jas whichever you prefer.



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C. Baruch

posted July 13, 2005 at 9:04 am


Don’t get me wrong, I believe an understanding of the atonment is important. However, what we see in the book of Acts, is people like Peter preaching that Jesus arose from the dead, but never explaining what it means. In the whole book of Acts, which is about how it was actually said and done by the early church, we’re hard put to find any theology of the atonement. To them, it appears, salvation came by believing in the person of Jesus, and believing that it did happen, rather than necessarily how it happened. Not that the “how” is unimportant. Paul gets into that later, as do Peter etc in the epistles, but the foundation seems to be about believing it did happen, and in the person who did it. Today we’ve got it the other way around.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 13, 2005 at 9:07 am


C. Baruch (nice name, by the way):I’m with you. This post is not about which atonement theory is best, but about how do we “prove” (justify our belief in) that Jesus died “for our sins.” We are attributing “meaning” to that death; how do we prove that our meaning is true?



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Paul

posted July 13, 2005 at 1:12 pm


If Rob is correct (and N.T. Wright) about what Paul meant by “forgiveness of sins” – and I tend to lean in that direction myself, then it seems that the “proof” is, as scottb says at the top, a truly redeemed community. It is the people of God faithfully living out the ramifications of the return from exile, embodying the presence of God and demonstrating the ongoing defeat of the enemy. I think that is how 1st C. Jews would have understood it. It is why they couldn’t understand Jesus’ teachings – because return from exile to them meant political self-determination, the presence of God was tied to the brick-and-mortar temple, and the defeat of the enemy meant Rome. None of those things were completed, thus their sins had not been forgiven.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 13, 2005 at 1:22 pm


Scott Berkhimer and others,I’m all for the community, but I wanted to explore the whole notion of “proof” in a postmodern mindset. What do you think of that?By the way, I don’t think Tom is right always on the “forgiveness” issue. Some forgiveness is interpersonal — Lord’s Prayer, for instance (at least in the redactional [?] comment at the end of Matt 6’s version).



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ScottB

posted July 13, 2005 at 1:40 pm


I think your earlier comment clarified that a bit, which is why I think my first impulse (to punt) was a fair one – proof is the wrong sort of way to approach this, if by proof you’re looking for defense of belief, I think. Newbigin talked about how the cross only makes sense in a worldview of which it’s the center (rough paraphrase). I think that’s critical – I don’t think there’s any way to prove this from outside of the belief system, so to speak. I think this is arational in the sense that it’s a function of faith rather than of reason, so I’m not sure then that proof is the right approach.The community topic, I think, comes through in an evidential, apologetic sense, but it’s not what I’d call “proof” in the way I think you’re using it here.



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Ted Gossard

posted July 13, 2005 at 2:04 pm


Jean, appreciated your thoughts as well as others on here. I do learn and hope I am always open to that.”Jesus Lived and then died to forgive me, after all thats what the Scripture says”. Our articulation in ANY culture would call for more that that.”Yes Jean, so true. And easy for people from my background to forget. But we quickly realize how true that is as we do mission, sharing our lives and God’s love in the world.”If sins are those things I do, or do not do, rather than ignorance and absence of His divine presence then we almost can’t help but look at the forgeiveness of sins and proof thereof as something puntilliar, and is easily proof texted ,which is the ulitmate kiss of death in postmodernity.”Did Eve in the garden sin in doing something when she disobeyed God’s command to her and Adam not to eat of the one tree? If statements in the story of God go against the grain of postmodernism (and they do), should that be a surprise when we see how Scripture characterizes the world system (such as in 1 John 2:15-17)?I would like to add that use of the term “Trinity” is itself making a statement of an absolute Truth. Is it not? When emergents insist on “relationship with the Trinity” as where it’s at, how is that different from people taking things Scripture teaches and saying that those things are true? Only different in that it is a theological formulation that is not taught with those words (though certainly there) in Scripture. Though I certainly fully agree that relationship in the community of the Triune God is what it’s all about, or what our goal should be.



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Ted Gossard

posted July 13, 2005 at 4:46 pm


I hope I am not coming across as arrogant. It would never occur to many of us that just because we make truth claims based on inscripturated revelation that we are arrogant. I certainly believe there are limitations in our knowing of everything- even though that knowing be by revelation of God to us, and that what God is helping us to enter into is love- and an intimate knowing, not just intellectual knowledge. Yet I cannot see, by inscripturated revelation, how I can set truth claims (to be proclamations) aside- certainly to be understood within the metanarrative of God.When Peter and Paul preached in Acts did they not use truth claims to reach the people then?



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jean

posted July 13, 2005 at 6:19 pm


Just a few more thoughts.I’m with you. This post is not about which atonement theory is best, but about how do we “prove” (justify our belief in) that Jesus died “for our sins.” We are attributing “meaning” to that death; how do we prove that our meaning is true?and…I’m all for the community, but I wanted to explore the whole notion of “proof” in a postmodern mindset. What do you think of that?These two statements of yours have caused me some reason to think about this a little bit more. Proof can really only be Love. For me the proof is the degree I am aware (my knowledge) of Love Himself, Jesus Christ, And proof to those around me would be the same answer. Love. The degree that others become aware of Love Himself, He is the proof, His presence, the basis for anything transformational.The proof of having my sins forgiven, is the gift of His presence,the Purest Love.Jean



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jean

posted July 13, 2005 at 6:39 pm


I did not say this, but I believe Love as Proof for Sins forgiven is proof for the post modern context.I have learned it is an unpopular answer.Jean



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Ted Gossard

posted July 13, 2005 at 6:55 pm


For my two cents worth:”I did not say this, but I believe Love as Proof for Sins forgiven is proof for the post modern context.”That sounds like a very true statement to me from my perspective. And not just for the post modern context, but I would believe it should have an important place in every context.



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RonMcK

posted July 16, 2005 at 12:37 am


I am not sure that we should be choosing between theories of the atonement. What Jesus accomplished was multi-faceted. Most of the theories contain some truth about what he achieved, but none of them can contain it all.Jesus death put right all the damage that was done by the fall. The only proof that his death has achieved something is the Christian community demonstrating that the fall has been reversed.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 16, 2005 at 4:04 am


RonMcK,You’ll have to see what I say about the “theories” when Embracing Grace comes out: but, perhaps you can guess from this they are “stories of the Story.”



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John Shakespeare

posted September 11, 2005 at 3:12 pm


It may be worth reading Timothy Gorringe’s book, “God’s Just Vengeance”. He devotes a lot of space to Anselm and a fair bit to Abelard, the reformers, Socinus and Grotius. The book is about the way in which penal theory and practice has been and is influenced by atonement theology. It is an excellent, thought-provoking read. You will probably be aware of “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross” by Joel Green and Mark Baker, and maybe of “Beyond Retribution” by Chris Marshall. All these books address atonement models.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 11, 2005 at 3:43 pm


John,
Gorringe falls into the trap of accusing Anselm of being judicial, when in fact he is not: Anselm is philosophical and is discussion a theoretical (not judicial) issue. The issue is about God’s honor (not man’s guilt).
Marshall’s book is good.



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bud

posted October 29, 2005 at 3:48 am


from my reading of the gospels, Jesus very intentionally avoided “proof” of His position and mission. When it came down to it He always posed the question “Who then do you say I am?” He asked it of His inquisitors. He asked it of Pilate (did Pilate really want to know if He was the Messiah or was he just mouthing hearsay?) Most famously, He asked Peter and showed that it was in our answer to the “question” that any Truth is revealed, even without “proof”.
I answer with Peter that He is the Son of the Living God. THat alone is my claim to any righteousness.



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danB

posted July 15, 2006 at 11:49 pm


It’s been a year since you posted this post! And here I am just now coming across it. I’m preaching on Matthew 16 tomorrow and will be reflecting on the issue of Jesus making his way to Jerusalem where he will suffer, die and be raised.
Obviously this is atonement stuff form this side of Calvary though perhaps not so much for the disciples and those who heard these words in their original context.
I think I will explore Jensen’s thoughts further on this issue- Jesus is the son sent to the keepers of the vineyard and is killed by them. Will the owner now send an army to kill the keepers? That is the verdict of the Pharisees who hear this story (good postmodern lingo? Story?). But wait! Jesus is the son who is sent… and he is indeed killed! But at the moment of his death he prays… “Father FORGIVE them….”!
Is the resurrection the choice of the Father to accept the prayer of his son and Forgive? Has God accepted the Son’s portrayal of who God is in some deep and eternal way?
OK, this post is long past and I don’t expect anyone will read this but I thought maybe I’d just get my name and a post in the Jesus Creed Blog archives! ;-)



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