Jesus Creed

The second case study in LeRon Shults’s book Christology and Sciencedeals with atonement and cultural anthropology – a topic if anything more controversial than incarnation and evolutionary biology. How should we articulate an understanding of the atonement appropriate for our day and age – and what role (if any) should studies of human nature, human history, and human culture play in our understanding of the atoning work of God through Jesus?
[SMcK adds: one of the highlights of this summary is that it points to the developmental nature of how we do theology. It points also to the importance of language. What the Bible shows is an ongoing series of expressions of God’s atoning work, not one of which ever completely exhausts what atonement is and does. Thanks RJS for this stimulating summary of one of the finest theologians in the world today.]
Again Shults puts it quite bluntly: “A reforming Christology should articulate the saving power of God in a way that actually facilitates reformation. Continuing to depend on ancient and early modern philosophical and legal categories for explaining the Christian experience of salvation in our late modern context obscures the Gospel and alienates our disciplinary neighbors.” (p. 107)
(Ok ? I am stepping out of my depth here, so if those with more knowledge and background find fault with my use of terms it should lead to interesting discussion?)
Like expressions describing incarnation and sin, the various descriptions of the atonement did not develop in a vacuum. The objective realities of human culture and context and subjective influences of particular cultures and circumstances influenced the ways in which the atonement was and is framed and understood. Shults discusses the history of ideas relating to atonement in terms of three pairs of concepts: Particular and Universal; Law and Order; Us and Them.
Particular and Universal: Expressions of the atonement develop in the context of understanding how a particular human (Adam, Jesus) influences the being of an entire class (humanity). The Logos assumed humanity, became united with humanity and healed humanity. A thread of universalism permeates the writings of many early church fathers as a result of this understanding of the nature of the atonement — what has been assumed as a class has been healed. Views of atonement changed when the human nature was reconsidered as an attribute of a collection of individuals rather than a reality in and of itself.
Law and Order: Cultural assumptions about law and order had a strong influence on the development of atonement theories as well; ransom, satisfaction, substitution, governmental ? expressions of the atoning act of God through Christ that rely on the overriding concern of justice and in many cases justice with mercy. Philosophical shifts and changes in the very structures of our societies and communities undermine the usefulness of these expressions.
A taste of Shults’s way of expressing it:

The proper theological response here is not the facile adaptation of the political power of the church to the latest social theory. The radically redemptive reconciliation that is connected to the agency of Jesus creates a kingdom that is not “of this world” although it is transformative “in the world.” Jesus’ way of acting challenged the idea that human flourishing could be achieved solely by following the rules of “the law.” It cannot be achieved by conformity to any particular human theory of jurisprudence. (p. 81)

Us and Them: Modern sociology has explored the role of differentiation (us vs. them) in culture, with socio-biologists suggesting that need to differentiate us and them is not cultural – but rather biological, a trait that enhances the survival of the species. These disciplines bring some insight into expressions of atonement.

Unfortunately the philosophical hardening of the categories us and them has registered an effect on many traditional theories of atonement. … The irony is hard to miss. Here the doctrine of at-one-ment is precisely not about reconciliation and union, but about the violent exclusion (and in some theories the endless torture) of the other. … The question here is not whether there are (or should be) differentiations but whether a harsh separation between us and them ought to be the driving force behind the Christian doctrine of atonement. (p. 86-87)

Scot should be writing this synopsis ? if you want an overview in somewhat less academic language try Embracing Grace and A Community Called Atonement. Many of the ideas emphasized by Shults are also present in these books. (Not that there is total agreement; but there is a thick common thread.)
Shults makes the point that we need an expression of the atoning work of God through Jesus that takes into account the entire story — the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — not emphasizing any of these to the exclusion of the others. We would also do well to realize the role that context and culture has played in traditional articulations of the atonement as we wrestle with how to understand and express the atonement in our day and age. Jesus did not come to every place ? every time in an ephemeral way, but to a specific time and place within history. The broad task of defining atonement should integrate the insights from sociology and cultural anthropology along with Biblical exegesis and theology and church history.
Now to the question: I am interested in your thoughts here. Shults claims, and I agree, that culture influences our thinking about the atoning work of Christ, and that Christology should articulate the saving power of God in a way that actually facilitates reformation. So … what aspect or understanding of the atoning work of Christ hits you where you live (i.e. “facilitates reformation”)?

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