Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Feminism and Atonement

posted by xscot mcknight

I will lay it down as a premise for theological thinking about the atonement that one’s theory of sin shapes (even to the point of determining) one’s theory of the atonement. I will also agree with many scholars who point out that males have shaped the discussion of the atonement. Let’s just name the major influences: Irenaeus and the recapitulation theory, the Cappadocian fathers and the ransom theory, Anselm and the satisfaction theory, Abelard and the moral influence theory, the Reformers and the penal substitution theory, Hugo Grotius and the government theory. Each theory is connected to a male. Has their “maleness” intruded into the theory of the atonement? Feminists think so. What do you think?
Rita Finger argued that the penal substitution and moral influence theories encouraged women into patterns of submission, while the ransom (Christus Victor) theory encouraged liberation. Some feminists have repudiated the cross as an instrument of powerful violence against the oppressed and powerless, and have therefore sought out a theory of atonement that is virtually cross-less (Ruether). The cross, so they are arguing, justifies violence against the weak.
Now if the premise above be accepted, we are in need of examining our understanding of sin, and we have to ask if males have shaped the discussion in light of male-ish sins and therefore male-ish atonement. Do the theories of atonement above mostly focus on the “curse” of God against Adam in Genesis 3 and do they incorporate enough the “curse” against women in Genesis 3?
Can it be said that women “sin” differently than men? That their “kinds” of sins are (while not wholly other) in marked contrast or the mirror image of male sins? Valerie Saiving Goldstein concluded in her famous essay in the Journal of Religion in 1960 that the temptations of women are not the same as the temptations of men. And Sally Alsford concludes this: “Just as ‘male’ sins are destructive outworkings of male experience and potentiality, so ‘female’ sins are destructive outworkings of female experience and potentiality” (152; see below). That is, “the male perspective which speaks of self-assertion as sin may cause women to strangle such desires as in conflict with their calling to love and service of others” (152).
To be sure, we have to be careful of stereotyping males and females, but avoiding such a stereotype does not permit us to fail to observe the realities of the male and female experiences as shaping both sin and atonement.
Here’s an example: Is the inherent power structure of the world the imposition of a male experience of how the male Eikon is cracked? In other words, is it the projection and systematizing of the male propensity to overpower? What it would it be like (I hear Aristophanes knocking at my door) if women’s experience were imposed on the world?
Alsford also suggests that because males have shaped the discussion of atonement, the cross itself is often the entire point of the atonement because it is in the cross that males find resolution to their particular problem with power. She suggests that a feminist theory of atonement will take into consideration the life, death, and resurrection.
I have recently been reading J. Goldingay, Atonement Today, and the article by Sally Alsford (pp. 148-165) is a nice survey of the theories. For another survey, see J. Denny Weaver, A Nonviolent Atonement.



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Bruce Smith

posted February 16, 2006 at 9:18 am


Scot, once again, you have chosen a great topic to discuss. I can’t wait to see where this will lead!



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Julie

posted February 16, 2006 at 10:18 am


Hey Scot.
Have you read any of Elizabeth Johnson related to this discussion? I like She Who Is.
I like that you are opening a discussion on this topic and would like to throw out a passage to explore. Here’s a quote from Johnson that might be useful for this discussion (especially for those who haven’t read feminist theology):
“Along with other forms of political and liberation theology, feminist theology repudiates an interpretation of the death of Jesus as required by God in repayment for sin. Such a view today is virtually inseparable from an underlying image of God as an angry, bloodthirsty,, violent, sadistic father, reflecting the very worst kind of male behavior. Rather, Jesus’s death was an act of violence brought about by threatened human men, as sin, and therefore against the will of a gracious God. It occurred historically in consequence of Jesus’s fidelity to the deepest truth he knew, expressed in his message and behavior which showed all twisted relationships to be incompatible with Sophia-God’s shalom.” (Sophia is a name for God that she uses in her writing.)
con’t.
“Challenging the validity of powerful relations normed by dominance and submission, his liberating life bore the signature of his death; in that sense, suffering was most probable. What comes clear in the event, however, is not Jesus’s necessary passive victimization divinely decreed as a penalty for sin, but rather a dialectic of disaster and powerful human love through which the gracious God of Jesus enters into solidarity with all those who suffer and are lost. The cross, in all its dimensions, violence, suffering, love, is the parable that enacts Sophia-God’s participation in the suffering of the world” (158-9).
Just thought I’d throw out a direct quote from a Catholic feminist theologian to show how the feminists rework the atonement theory… and craft their theology of the cross.
Julie



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Benjamin

posted February 16, 2006 at 10:18 am


I think personally that it is folly to seperate Christians-or people at all-into different groups. We know from scripture that we are neither male or female, jew or greek, but ONE in Christ Jesus. Division never helps but always develops into one group being disengaged from the other.



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Julie

posted February 16, 2006 at 10:24 am


Amen Benjamin. Would that it were so.



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Jamie Hollis

posted February 16, 2006 at 10:43 am


I came across this idea for the first time here: http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com/node/235 and have been interested in it since. I look forward to the conversation.



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Ahnog

posted February 16, 2006 at 11:47 am


The man is the glory and image of God. The woman is the glory of the man.
For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.
(1 Corinthians 11:7-12 NASB)
Just as God sacrificed for man, so man should and must sacrifice for the woman if his love is what it ought to be.
I don’t deny that men have oppressed women, but I don’t see any value in women trying to deny the role God created them for in response to that. Much of what passes for feminism today is the assertion that women don’t need men. As the text points out above, neither of us are independent of the other.
Look at TV. Men are protrayed as buffoons and woman are protrayed as wise and intelligent. When men are held up as good examples they are often feminized instead of their masculinity being held up as something that is good and positive.
On the other hand masculinity is often portrayed not as true, sacrificing love, but as mere lust and violence.
The real problem in all of this is selfishness. Many men have selfishly dominated women and tried to use the word of God to justify it. Women on the other hand have selfishly tried to assert they don’t need men and can get along just fine without them. Both are wrong.
I have been married for 30 years. I have learned I am incomplete without my wife. She is as much a part of me as any organ in my body. I think she looks at me in the same way, and we both see our union with God in the same terms.
In the church realm I am happy to see women asserting themselves in places of service. Service, love, that is what life is all about, and giftedness, not gender should determine qualification to serve.



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Bruce Smith

posted February 16, 2006 at 1:52 pm


Scot, I do not claim to be an expert on theological feminism but it seems very simplistic. As a result to some of the points of your outline, I would like to offer an initial critique of feminist theology. They seem embrace:
1. Radical Disregard for God’s transcendence. What I mean by this is the following: according to your points above, masculine thinkers and feminine thinkers must shape their understanding of God from their own experience. This is why one will call God “Sophia” and others will call Him YHWH. The theological quest is radically subjective rather than both subjective and objective. For the feminist, it seems, the subjective and the objective are “either/or” rather than “both/and” (I think that I hear Kierkegaard knocking on the door! ?) This is why I called their position radical; for Kant held that (ethically speaking) it was necessary to have a transcendent knower of truth [if I have understood him correctly] (cf., his Critique of Judgment).
2. Radical Stereotyping: They seem to claim that men are oriented toward violence and women are oriented toward non-violence. While men commit many times more acts of violence than women, this does not mean that there is a feverish hunger for blood that drives atonement theorists. The fact is – some men are violent, some women are violent, some men are peace-loving and some women are peace-loving. History and common experience proves this is so. Once again, they fall prey to all kinds of false dichotomies and broad assumptions about men and women.
3. Dubious Understanding of the Nature of the Atonement: Let me offer an example. One of the oldest views of the atonement listed above is Recaptiulation. This is the Eastern Orthodox view and it argues that we are not saved by Christ’s death alone but by both his life and death. This view is incarnation. As Christ took on humanity, he redeemed humanity, as he took on the physical, he redeemed the physical (i.e. all creation). Bishop Kallistos Ware, a great spokesman for the Orthodox Church asks the question, was Christ’s death necessary? His response is instructive:
“The Incarnation, it was said, is an act of identification and sharing. God saves us by identifying himself with us, by knowing our human experience from the inside. The Cross signifies, in the most stark and uncompromising manner, that this act of sharing is carried to the utmost limits. God incarnate enters into all our experience. Jesus Christ our companion shares not only in the fullness of human life but also in the fullness of human death” (Ware, The Orthodox Way, 104). While the feminists see this as a violent view of the atonement, their position seems difficult to sustain. The Orthodox view, it may be reasonable to assert, is empathetic rather than violent. If we were to examine each of the other atonement views, we would begin to see that there is a lot more going on than a thirst for blood and violence.



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Bruce Smith

posted February 16, 2006 at 2:05 pm


I would like to make one addition to post #7, sec.#1. What I mean to say is that the feminist process of discovery does not seem to be interested in knowing God as He is (in the objective sense, i.e., who He is as separate from who I am) but only in the sense of how I perceive God to be (in a purely subjective sense, i.e., without regard to who God is separate from myself).



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Julie

posted February 16, 2006 at 2:37 pm


Hey Bruce.
Permit me a postmodern moment. :)
There is no such thing as an objective search for God. All attempts to define God are imperfect and controlled by subjectivity. Even if we rely on the Bible as source material, our readings of the Bible will be controlled either consciously or unconsciously by our subjectivity. Unavoidable.
Since all we have are our subjective attempts to unmask the ineffable, Absolute Mystery, we have to accept that some of what we think we know is not necessarily the last word on the subject. We see through a glass darkly… but it gets particularly dark when one version of God is preferred and given the status of orthodoxy while bracketing out the subjective and yet important insights of another whole group of people, in this case, women.
The attempt to collapse men and women into one category (as though there aren’t meaningful differences between the ways in which they perceive and relate to the divine) is an attempt to protect the status quo (namely the definitions and perspectives of God that historically accrue to men).
And while I would be hesitant to say that women will necessarily bring “female” attributes to God as the corrective, it’s more that women’s status as marginalized Christians over the centuries changes how they relate to God, how they understand God. This is not about feminine attributes as much as it is about femaleness and marginalization and how God relates to that experience… an experience most white western European and American males can’t relate to. (Not their fault… they just can’t.)
So to me, the goal isn’t to find the one right definition of God that is objective, but rather to bring to the table a multiplicity of voices to help inform the incomplete picture of God that we’ve inherited.



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John

posted February 16, 2006 at 3:11 pm


I like the way Julie answered Bruce. If we go back (as we did on the discussion of homosexuality) to Genesis 1 and 2, we discover that the “image of God’ finds expression in both female and male human beings. It seems to me in the literature I’ve read and discussions I’ve had that the last thing the fundamentalists and some evangelicals want to do is probe the female dimensions of the “image of God” related to theology-shaping. The come-back is usually that God is God; HE (note HE) is neither male nor female. But Scot’s observation stands: most theology through church history has the dominant male imprint because, as we all know, “Adam was created first…” blah, blah, blah.



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Scot McKnight

posted February 16, 2006 at 3:26 pm


Julie,
The first quote from Johnson is what we don’t need more of: gross, gross mischaracterization of the Reformers view of the atonement. In spite of the traditionalist attempts over and over to say that penal substitution springs from the love of the Father (not his abusive anger), it is ignored over and over.
My concern is this: does the male form of sin differ from the female form of sin, and if so, is not the atonement, which is clearly multivalent in biblical images, correspondingly different in emphasis?
That, I think, is an important question.
Bruce,
I did mention that we need to avoid stereotyping male and female, but I think many today would permit differentiation here. We are not “human” so much as either “male” or “female.”
And, the Orthodox view of atonement is much more compatible with this feminist critique of traditional theories of the atonement. So, that last point suprised me: I see someone like Rita Finger (and others) finding that theory of atonement an improvement on the domination in Reformed and post-Reformed circles of the penal substitution theory.



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Bruce Smith

posted February 16, 2006 at 4:07 pm


Julie, thanks for your response. I have really enjoyed reading your posts as you are, clearly, a brilliant thinker. As a result of your questions I would like to begin by talking about the interrelation between objectivity and subjectivity. While it is not possible to pursue God in a totally objective fashion, this does not mean that it is not possible to understand God with some degree of objectivity. It seems fair to assert that we know most things with a degree of subjectivity and a degree of objectivity. As a child, Terry Bradshaw (My favorite QB), sent me an autographed picture of himself. Objectively, I was sent a picture, a short note and a signature. Subjectively, it was something that I clung to as a treasure. Objectively, my mother, father, sisters and brothers saw essentially the same thing as I (photo, note, signature). Subjectively, it took on a different dimension for them (none of them liked football and were fairly unimpressed). Could we say that it is not possible to have an totally objective understanding of the photo, note and signature? Yes, I think that that would be fair. Would it be also fair to say that it is possible to have a limited objective understanding of the photo, note and signature. Of course it would be reasonable to have such an understanding (c.f., A. Plantinga, Warrant in Proper Function).
Let us now turn to your example. You mention that the Scriptures will not help us gain an objective understanding of who God is, “Even if we rely on the Bible as source material, our readings of the Bible will be controlled either consciously or unconsciously by our subjectivity. Unavoidable.” Because I am a Christian, I believe, by faith, in God’s special revelation. This means essentially, that God has chosen to reveal certain specific truths about Himself in the Bible so that we can understand what he wants us to understand about Himself. If there was no such thing as special revelation and all we had to go on was general revelation (creation, etc.,) then I find a great deal of common ground with your view (though, I believe that even nature [i.e., general revelation] can show us some objective truths about God). But to assert that because we cannot know God in a totally objective manner means that we cannot know Him in some objective sense seems misdirected. Once again, it presents us with a false dichotomy. Let us consider a different discipline, math for instance. My wife and I can read a math book and learn how to add, subtract, divide and multiply. While, we may not look at these things completely in the same way (colored by our subjectivity), we can say that our general concepts of how the various processes of math operate (objectively speaking) are nearly identical. This does not mean that it will not have its own nuances of meaning for us personally, but we will have a general understanding of these concepts with a relatively high degree of objective certainty. Back to God as knowable – certainly, we will not understand God exactly as others will understand, but we certainly can generally understand Him to the degree to which he will allow us to know Him. I base this on the fact that He is God and if he wants to make Himself known, it seems fair to affirm that He can do so.
To summarize, I am not advocating radical objectivity but I am critiquing radical subjectivity. Justifiable true belief includes an interaction between the two (objectivity and subjectivity). The problem with feminism, as has been presented (and I am no expert on theological feminism) is that it tends toward radical subjectivity. Radical subjectivity, as is the case with radical objectivity, cannot be intellectually sustained in the real world (this is my opinion).
With reference to my denial that there are differences between men and women, I think that I have been misunderstood. It has always been my impression that it was feminism that taught that the only difference between men and women was reproductive. They have traditionally argued that the differences which we do see are a result of environment rather than genetic co-factors (I could be wrong about this, as it has only been my impression through observing popular feminism). Once again, this seems like a false dichotomy as modern genetics continues to point out that DNA and environment shape each of us in our own way.
My problem is that the theological feminists seem to assume that male theologians are bent toward violence. My point only is that this contradicts common experience. There are violent men and violent women. There are peaceful men and peaceful women. To assume that the atonement theories are violent because men are violent is simplistic and stereotypical.
Let me know what you think.



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graham

posted February 16, 2006 at 4:08 pm


“Radical Stereotyping…”
Hmmm, are all feminist theologians guilty of that, Bruce? ;-)



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Scot McKnight

posted February 16, 2006 at 4:15 pm


Bruce,
Thanks for this, and I appreciate what you are saying — and I do agree that some feminists are radical in stereotyping males (and females — womanist theologians [African or African American females] contend just that) and in subjectivity.
What we need to admit, though, is that subjectivity comes into play — for feminists and for traditionalist males who at times pretend it isn’t involved.
The qualifications you make about objectivity and subjectivity is precisely where there is postmodernity, and I see critical realism more or less in the postmodernist realm (though critical realism eschews radical postmodernist theory and denial of truth).
So, I see you advocating here a critical realist view: there is a real text and a real God and our study of the text and God will only approximate, more or less, that real text and God.
Let’s not jump on Bruce’s contentions here, for his qualifications here, though using objectivist and subjectivist language, place him in the critical realist camp.



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Bruce Smith

posted February 16, 2006 at 4:21 pm


Scot, why would Recapitulation be consistent with the feminist critique? Orthodoxy only argues that Jesus had to experience all that we experience to redeem us in total. If the fact that life leads to death implies violence, then I guess life is violent. But if the life to death continuum is natural, then their (the Orthodox) view of atonement would be natural or as I said, “empathetic” [I guess this all depends on our subjective understanding of the subject!:)]. To summarize Bishop Ware, Jesus only died because we die, in his life he redeemed life and in his death he redeemed death.
Thanks for the feedback, you have given me a lot to think about. This is a wonderful conversation.



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Bruce Smith

posted February 16, 2006 at 4:24 pm


Graham — Touche!



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Scot McKnight

posted February 16, 2006 at 4:33 pm


Bruce,
Athanasius’ theory of Jesus’ atoning death is not substitutionary as it came to be that with the Reformers. So, in the recapitulation theory you’ve got death without violence — hence, a more easily graspable theory for the feminist case.



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Julie

posted February 16, 2006 at 5:08 pm


Scot, can you clear up for me what you meant here:
The first quote from Johnson is what we don’t need more of: gross, gross mischaracterization of the Reformers view of the atonement. In spite of the traditionalist attempts over and over to say that penal substitution springs from the love of the Father (not his abusive anger), it is ignored over and over.
I didn’t think that it had been ignored as much as critiqued. My impression in reading both feminist and womanist theology is that they don’t see that the explanations of the penal substitution theory adequately expressing love of God claimed by the reformed camp, even as the reformed camp insists.
I don’t mean to derail this conversation to theories of atonement unecessarily. I just wanted to point out that they aren’t ignoring it, but critiquing it. If I get more time, I’ll dig up more of the critique. Wanted to clarify too that I am no expert on feminist theology. I am barely getting my toes wet in that theological world and find it an interesting journey.
Scot and Bryan, also, the critical realist camp works for me. I tend to lean toward radical postmodernism in my worldview, but try to hold on by my toes to keep from falling over the edge. :)
Julie



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Bruce Smith

posted February 16, 2006 at 5:30 pm


Scot, when you say more graspable, do you mean Recapitulation helps them better make the case that traditional views of the atonement are violence driven? or do you mean that Recapitulation works against this thesis?
I would like to leave another quote from Ware. He is writing in the context of Jesus suffering in Gethsemane. He says, “Jesus enters at this moment totally into the experience of spiritual death. He is at this moment identifying himself with all the despair and mental pain of humanity; and this identification is far more important to us than his participation in our physical pain” (Ware, The Orthodox Way, 105).
Perhaps, I don’t understand what is they mean by a “violent” understanding of the atonement?



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Julie

posted February 16, 2006 at 5:39 pm


Bruce, a violent understanding of the atonement: the idea that God requires the death of his son to forgive our sins (as though he couldn’t forgive them any other way)… he had to have a sacrifice, the death of someone, in this case, his son.
Some who don’t hold to this version of atonement say that Jesus’s death was the natural result of being identified with the marginalized and because of his opposition to the status quo. The violence done to him mirrors the violence that was/is perpetrated on those who are victims everywhere. The idea is that he stands in solidarity with the suffering, rather than that he is paying God back for a debt that humanity owes. His incarnational life accomplished our salvation rather than his death paying a price for our sins.
Anselm’s vicarious atonement is from 1197-98 which is fairly late ont eh scene as far as theories go, though he is certainly drawing on the patristic fathers in some senses.
There are lots of arguments for why Anselm’s theory is out of step with the Bible but most of these were labeled heretical by both the RCC and the reformers. :) Naturally. I won’t go into them here since this blog is about feminism and why they reject the penal substitution theory of atonement. Violence, then, to them, is an inadequate way to understand the cross.



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Bruce Smith

posted February 16, 2006 at 5:52 pm


Julie, thanks for your clear description of the concept. If this is what it means, then would my understanding that Recapitulation is not a “violent” theory of the atonement stand (because Jesus died to redeem death as an aspect of our human experience rather than as a substitute who was punished in our stead)?



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Julie

posted February 16, 2006 at 6:03 pm


Bruce, I find that a very interesting idea (redeeming death, not as payment for sin)! I want to chew on it a bit to see where it leads theologically. Maybe Scot will address it more thoroughly.
I am thinking a bit of James Cone when I read what you wrote and even Bonhoeffer. But I want to check it out and see if it works with the thoughts it is prompting. Any links or books you suggest to read more about “Recapitulation” theory?



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Joel Richardson

posted February 16, 2006 at 7:02 pm


Scot,
I like the idea of the Christus Victor motif possibly being a primary way to view the atonement. However, even as Fredrika Matthews Green has pondered, if this theory be true, couldn’t Christ simply have died in His old age in His sleep and still defeated death and accomplished the same result? Have you ever see this critique raised and if so, have you heard any responses?
Bless You,
Joel



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Bruce Smith

posted February 17, 2006 at 5:41 pm


Julie, Sorry that it has taken so long to get back to you on this. Some good resources for understanding Orthodoxy is Kallistos Ware’s “The Orthodox Way,” some primary material is found in the excellent twin books by Fortress Press, “The Christological Controversy,” and the “The Trinitarian Controversy.” The formulator of Recapitulation was Irenaeus of Lyons, who was one generation removed from the Apostle John. He studied under Polycarp who studied under John. Thus, Irenaeus was a strong opponent of Gnosticism and is the movement that he reacted against. His most famous and comprehensive work is “Against Heresies” (tough reading!). Daniel Clendon (sp.?) put together some interesting books on Eastern Orthodoxy which discuss some of the important theological points of Orthodoxy and does so with great relevancy.
Finally, I must say that while I was tempted for some time, I never was able to embrace Recapitulation personally. I wrote my reasons for this are filed under Scot’s post for today. I just felt that it was not a violent atonement theory and as a result disproved the feminist syllogism:
Men are Violent
Men formulated traditional Atonement theories
Therefore, the traditional Atonement theories are violent
I embrace the penal substitution atonement theory and I could see how someone could say that it is a violent theory. So, I felt that it would be better to begin the discussion with an attempt to show the dubious nature of the above syllogism. Thanks for the great discussion!



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Ben

posted February 17, 2006 at 11:41 pm


I really feel like when we are try to categorize people-whether it be race or gender-that we limit their potential. This may move into the realm of social justice but the human need to classify each other is extremely destructive. The “church” defining itself by its racial make-up does not assist to provide a loving and developing relationship with fellow Christians. If we continue to define ourselves by our outward appearence we will never live in harmony by our Christian faith. We should not be worried about the racial make-up but by the strength of the spiritual development of our congregation.



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Julie

posted February 18, 2006 at 10:14 am


Thanks Bruce!
Julie



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graham

posted February 19, 2006 at 4:32 am


Bruce, I kinda like that feminist syllogism, but I’d want to tweak it:
People are Violent
People formulated traditional Atonement theories
Therefore, the traditional Atonement theories are violent.
Of course, that also makes every atonement theory suspect, which might be a good thing.



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Bryan Hodge

posted February 19, 2006 at 4:32 pm


Let’s try this one too:
Postmoderns shy away from violence
Postmoderns are now forming atonement theories
Therefore, postmodern atonement theories are non-violent.
Hey that works! We can probably see biases in everyone. The truth of an issue though is more on how it stands Biblically and historically through the exegetical and ecclesiastical criticisms levelled against it. Otherwise, we’re just doing a root fallacy thing.



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