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Postmodernity and the Atonement 2

posted by xscot mcknight

In yesterday’s post I asked the question how we can “prove” that Jesus died for our sins. Many of your responses were challenging and were, so I think, getting to the issue itself. I’d like to wend my way through to what I will call an “answer.”

First, I begin with Lyotard’s observation that postmodernity is against metanarratives, not because they are present but because the scientific mind of modernity thought it could prove that metanarrative by stepping outside that metanarrative to an objective world where the metanarrative could be independently demonstrated to be true. He was against the metanarrative because practitioners thought it could be proven by Reason. (I’m not Lyotardian specialist, but this is what I understand of him.)

Second, many within my own brand of Evangelicalism undertake quite often to “prove” theological affirmations in a similar manner. Some things can be “proven” in a similar fashion: for instance, the resurrection — many believe they can examine “nothing but the facts” and sort it all out and come to the rational, reasonable conclusion that Jesus was raised from the dead. I will leave this idea alone because I tend to think this is the sort of thing that we can “prove,” though it might not be quite as scientific as we sometimes think.

Third, this sort of proof is simply not available when we begin to talk about “meaning.” That is, we might be able to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead, but we can’t prove in the same way (or with the same kind of “objective” analysis) that he was raised “for our justification” or that Jesus died “for my sins.”

Fourth, so what can we say? Let me offer what I think is a Christian framing of an answer. When we begin to talk at the level of “meaning” or, what many might call “significance,” we are dealing with what we might as well call a “metanarrative” or a “theological explanation.” Historical explanations are metanarratives that put events (some call them “discrete” but I have my problems with that view) into a meaningful narrative to make sense of them. The biblical narrative is that sort of meaning-inspired narrative. (Kevin Vanhoozer accepts the notion that Lyotard saw postmodernity fighting against modernity because of its appeal to Reason, but knows that there are other senses of the term “metanarrative.” I use it in the latter sense.) I can’t prove that Jesus died for me but I am confident it is true (and truth).

Fifth, this is where both Lyotard and Polanyi help us: both of them argued that metanarratives require commitment to a way of thinking and to an entire set of convictions for something to be demonstrated or to be knowledge in the sense of justified belief.

Sixth, I want to take this right back to Augustine who said that we believe in order to understand. Augustine has been used by many as a parallel (in this sense alone I suppose) to what is going on in the postmodern critique of modernity, and a parallel to such thoughts in Polanyi and Lyotard.

Seventh, this means that for us to believe that Jesus dies “for our sins” we have to be committed in faith to the “story of the Bible” — that the Creator God make us to be Eikons, that we are cracked Eikons, that God in his embracing grace gathers up the pieces of our lives and glues them together, in the context of a community, through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is our “story” or our “metanarrative,” and for Jesus’ death to be seen as “for our sins” we will have to embrace that story as our story. This means also that the “story of the Bible” is a Spirit-inspired work of God through the community of faith. (I admit, this is a lot all tangled together.)

Which means, and this I believe with all my heart, faith that Jesus died “for our sins” is the result of God’s grace.

(I just hope this doesn’t make me a Calvinist!)



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ScottB

posted July 13, 2005 at 1:44 pm


Should have read this one before commenting on the other post – I’m not sure if it makes you a Calvinist, but I think it’s certainly a biblical way to approach it. Polanyi’s work, in particular, seems to provide a good framework in which to think about some of these questions.Perhaps another way to think about it is that faith is a lot more like falling in love than it is like buying a car…



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Paul

posted July 13, 2005 at 3:08 pm


It may not make you a Calvinist, but it does make you sound a little like one. Not to worry, though. It is a good sound. :)



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john alan turner

posted July 13, 2005 at 3:17 pm


But how does one come to believe it? I mean really believe it and not just act like they’re believing? Is it just something that’s zapped into them from on high? Are people totally helpless in this endeavor? It seems I spend a lot of time with people who really want to believe. What am I to tell them? Try harder? Sit real still? Tell God you want to believe and wait for the zap?



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Scot McKnight

posted July 13, 2005 at 4:31 pm


John, The wisdom of the Church has always been this:pray for God’s Spirit to work;proclaim God’s saving grace in Christ;perform the gospel in life and communty.



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Ted Gossard

posted July 13, 2005 at 4:48 pm


Scott, thanks for that powerful reminder in your response to John.



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Ryan

posted July 13, 2005 at 6:16 pm


I just hope this doesn’t make me a Calvinist!Now that wouldn’t be that bad of thing would it? :)



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john alan turner

posted July 13, 2005 at 6:59 pm


Scot, your response does sound a little bit Calvinistic. But I’m with some of the others in thinking that becoming a neo-Calvinist might not be THAT bad.Still, I’m wondering about something that may be a little off the beaten path here — I’m wondering about the nature of belief itself. People don’t choose their beliefs, do they? But they’re not entirely helpless in the matter, either. We can orient our lives around things that make belief easier or more difficult — do the research, see if things work or not, see what it feels like to behave like a believer. Gradually, over time, a person might discover themselves believing what they did not believe before, right? I mean, sometimes there’s a true catharsis. But sometimes belief kind of sneaks up on you.Perhaps we should make room for non-believers to join in some of our activities in the hope that they might act their way into a way of believing and then believe their way into a way of understanding. Does that make any sense, or have I had too much coffee today?



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Scot McKnight

posted July 13, 2005 at 7:18 pm


John,I’m for the idea of permeable walls (I posted on this way back when).Yes, people choose and all that. And we need apologetics to show that our faith is reasonable and all that; but we can’t prove the deepest heart of our faith by resorting to some sort of objective reason.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 13, 2005 at 7:20 pm


As for being a Calvinist, neo-Calvinist, or anything like it: the Bible (read: Hebrews 6) won’t let me.But, I read Calvin and I pray the Lord to forgive him for his exaggerations. (And me of mine.)And all the bloggers who rib me about Calvinism.



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Steve McCoy

posted July 13, 2005 at 7:22 pm


I knew when you tagged on that last line you were going to hear it. I’m restraining myself Scot. :)



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John Frye

posted July 13, 2005 at 7:52 pm


Help me out, Scot, and loyal bloggers. Scot, is your answer then we can’t prove it? We can, by the operations of grace via the metanarrative of God, the proclamation of grace, and the living reality in the followers of Jesus, receive the confidence of “Jesus died for our sins,” but it’s not provable in normal sense in which we use the verb “prove”?Now, if you, yes that’s close to what I’m saying, how does that make you a Calvinist–whether being one is a good thing or not? Do you mean Calvinist versus Arminian? Classical theistic determinism versus real (risky)human freedom (relational theism)?



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a damn green

posted July 13, 2005 at 8:07 pm


i just finished reading N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God (which i highly reccomend) and will soon be attempting Ressurection of the Son of God and he makes a lot of the same points, escpessially the last point in relation to story. The Christian ‘story’ makes the most sense within (or as a continuation of) the Jewish story. And outside of the Jewish story there is a lot of room for error and confusion. Ultimatly the meaning of Jesus death is tied directly to the Jewish story/worldview. I liked your article. I don’t think you sound calvinist at all.Jesus Christ and the Lowest Common Denominatorwww.jclcd.blogspot.com



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Scot McKnight

posted July 13, 2005 at 8:36 pm


John,I’ll drop the Calvinism point: it was about it all being grace.But, you’re right: we can’t “prove” it in the way many think we can. The need for faith and commitment up front is what leads us to be able to justify our beliefs with reason. Big difference, don’t you think? In other words, when it comes to the “meaning” or “significance” or “metanarrative,” whatever you want to call it, we have left the realm of the provable in the empirical/phenomenal/whatever sense and moved into a world where grace leads us home. Something like that.



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Michael F. Bird

posted July 14, 2005 at 2:36 am


By Request I have dropped this ‘thought’on Scot’s question about the atonement:Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed poses the question of how do we prove to postmoderns that Christ died for our sins? Now this is a tricky question, but here’s my take:First, it depends on what you think “for our sins” (1 Thess. 5.10; Rom. 5.8 etc) means in terms of atonement theology. Here I would strenuously argue in favour of substitutionary and representational models of atonement (note Wallace GGBB pp. 380-89 who suggests instances were hyper overlaps with anti).Second, it depends on what you mean by prove. I can cite several NT verses to show that Christ died for us in a redemptive way, which is one form of proof; but it is unlikely to be persuasive to postmodern Peter or postmodern Patricia? They might say, “Well, that’s just your interpretation!” or “That’s true for you, but not for me!”. Or they might even try to deconstruct my exegesis and say that my atonement theology is merely the attempt to impose on them feelings of guilt so as to force them to conform to my Christian ideology. Or those with a hermeneutic of suspicion might say that ascribing a redemptive function to Jesus’ death is an instance of cognitive dissonance whereby the early Christians compensated for the death of their leader and for their smashed hopes by regarding Jesus’ demise as a planned act of God that constituted their deliverance.Third, my tentative solution is to perceive the cross as the crucial moment in three intersecting stories: the penultimate climax of the Jesus story, the hope of the story of a world gone wrong, and the prequel to the story of the Christians. We don’t prove anything about Jesus’ death, rather we tell the stories, and invite participants to identify themselves within the story. We urge Peter and Patricia to enter into our narrative world and pose the question to them, “Is this story, your story?” And ask, “Do you sense the goodness of creation, a goodness now marred, tainted and poisoned by evil and yet, the world still groans for deliverance? Do you see in the human race the icon of something beautiful and glorious and yet now tragically broken with a rapacious appetite for terror and a lust for destruction – do you even see glimpses of that at times in the darkest corners of your inner being? Can you define evil, name it, know it, explain your innate fear and hatred of it, and describe why in a world without absolutes it still seems so inexplicably wrong, like it wasn’t meant to happen? Do you see in the cross just another dead Jew, one of many, from Golgotha to Auschwitz? Or can you see what I have seen, what I have heard, what I have felt – on that wretched piece of wood hangs not a tragedy but a triumph, not the vanquished but the victor, not a failure but our future, power in powerlessness, and hatred trounced by love. In the cross can you feel your rebellion conquered, your thirst quenched, your penalty paid, your soul quickened, and your defiance crumble? Can you close your eyes and see yourself walking towards that cross, edging closer and closer with every step, and reaching out with your hands to hold it, to shake it, to grasp it so you can share its weight, its ugliness, its despair, and its agony, to reach out and embrace it and cry in defiance ‘this cross is mine, my death, my sin, my condemnation, my annihilation’. And to then open your eyes and see a world . . . reborn. Is this how the story really goes? Is this your story? If so, Christ died for our sins.”Mike BirdChancellor of the Congress of Card Carrying Calvinists!



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jean

posted July 14, 2005 at 3:30 am


To Mr. Bird,Although lengthy, which seems to be the only way to really tell a good story your post did some jusice to the difficult task in “getting at” the truth claims of scripture, when communicating to post moderns.I appreciate you taking the time to tell an craft the example of post modern Patricia and Peter.I had opportunity to do them same yesterday on a previous post but did not have the time.I was asked yesterday specifically if “Eve sinned” when disobeying God in the garden”.Now I know she sinned, I know that her sin alienated her form God. I believe this to be so. But to start with such a claim in the post modern context for the many just won’t do. In order to aid a person in their movement toward God, and toward those truth claims, we must figure out where it is that Peter and Patrica are able to enter into the gospel story.Sometimes that means telling the stories of scripture in such a way as to allow room for the individual to identify their own human condition with what the scrpitue claims. It also requires as Eugene Peterson suggests “we redicover all over again the art of using colorful and imaginative langauge” Jean



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jean

posted July 14, 2005 at 4:04 am


Mr. Mcknight,”Which means, and this I believe with all my heart, faith that Jesus died “for our sins” is the result of God’s grace.”This has been a really long loop for you to end up saying that.What your saying is the Meta -narrative itself only frames but does not prove, only aids when one embraces, moves into the meta-narrative and owns it by faith commitment.Which confirms the need for a meta-narrative that allows one in whatever culture they find themselves in, a “story” an entry point into the gospel story. Here I will repeat what I said in an earlier point.What people have done is create a static meta-narrative out of rationalizations that keeps them from having to, or getting to, enter into the Gospel story from the context of their own story in a dialogical engagement- a process that is rational while at the same time humble and recognizing that all communicative discourse involves all the faculties in a proccess that is always mysterious- but not irrational. One that is incarnational at it’s core? I do not see “emerging” as denying meta-narrative, to do so is well, dumb. But they are calling for a meta-narative that as you stated scot, is “embodied, performed, and incarnated.”A meta-narrative that allows one to enter the gospel story, the version whose creed is Love, and whose performance is radical transformation.Jean



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Scot McKnight

posted July 14, 2005 at 4:36 am


Jean,Thanks for all your comments on the blog. I’m learning from all this.The reason “grace” is not such a jump is this: to find something to be true (truth/Truth) requires commitment to the “metanarrative” (non-Lyotardian use of term) that gives that truth is context for justification.Which means, commitment and faith are required to know, especially when it comes to knowing the Christiain faith.And, since faith comes by hearing, etc., and faith precedes saving knowledge, and grace prompts faith, then grace is the foundation of the knowledge of truth.



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jean

posted July 14, 2005 at 4:58 am


Scot,In all gentleness, I agree with your statement that grace precedes truth, however I would be more comfortable using the word Love instead of grace. Love as the primary communicative expression of the Tinity. I posted last evening one additional comment concerning my understanding of the “proof of sins forgiven” as being the presence of Love. I believe this to be the Proof you were calling for in the post modern context however “unreasonable” it stikes the vast majority, I feel this is in line with your statement on grace. It has the same “flavor” if you will.I look forward to your new series on conversion theory.I would also like to know where you are excepting thoughtful comments on “the Jesus Creed”.Jean



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Scot McKnight

posted July 14, 2005 at 5:26 am


Jean,Grace is one way of speaking of God’s Love extending to frail humans or cracked Eikons. So, yes, Love is behind that.On Jesus Creed, post thoughts if you’d like on my Conversion posts.



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RonMcK

posted July 16, 2005 at 12:41 am


Calvin would be a very popular blogger, if he was living in our time.



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