Monthly Archives: January 2014

23 Substitutionary atonement – is this what Christians have to believe?

A few weeks ago I attended a funeral in the south of England.  The deceased was a faithful Christian lady who had planned her own funeral with great care.   For me the service jarred in one place where the congregation were required to sing the controversial hymn ‘In Christ alone’.  This hymn is missing from many hymn books because of the words ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died , the wrath of God was satisfied.’  Many people have found these words upsetting and even offensive, as it implies that God could forgive humankind only through an event of supreme violence – the death of Jesus on the cross.

To understand the theology being put forward in this hymn, we have to recognise that Paul does in fact use the word that is translated as ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’ referring to God as well as another Greek word translated as ‘propitiate’.  This use of these words might imply support for the words of the hymn but as we shall see there is far more to be found in the New Testament on the sacrifice and the death of Christ than just these ideas of Paul.   Even if we take Paul’s thoughts as normative, scholars have indicated that these word ‘anger’ does not imply, as the English translations do, any suggestion of passion or feeling on the part of God.  Also as we shall see below, the word ‘propitiate’ does not imply an averting of anger of a vengeful God.

To go a bit deeper into this question of how Christ’s death can be spoken of as a sacrifice, we need first of all to look at what the early Christians thought about sacrifice and how we can understanding the connections they made between the sacrificial system and the death of Christ.  To have this understanding  we also have to go back further to see what they inherited from Judaism.

In the Old Testament we find three main types of sacrifice.  These are all set out in the Book of Leviticus.  In the first place we have what are known as communion sacrifices, eating and drinking in the context of a religious rite of sacrifice.  These are not prominent in New Testament times.  The second type is the whole burnt offering, an expensive type of offering which seems to have had its origins in the idea of feeding a god.  The third type of sacrifice is the one that dominates in the Book of Leviticus – the rite of expiation.  Expiation was predominantly about dealing the effects of sin by the use of blood rituals.  Blood with its associations with the life-force was believed to be particularly effective in cleansing and purifying human sin.  There was here no sense of offering anything to God.  The sacrifice was simply complying with an ordinance given by God himself to deal with sin, whether moral or to do with cultic impurity.  It is argued by scholars that the word for ‘propitiation’ has a meaning very close to that of expiation.

Alongside these three types of sacrifice were two Jewish feasts of particular importance to early Christian thought  and which involved sacrifice – the Passover and the Day of Atonement.  The feast of Passover was of course originally associated with the Exodus from Egypt and at its heart involved the use of blood smeared on doorposts to avert the Angel of Destruction.  Later the feast became one that had to be celebrated in Jerusalem and thus was the occasion of pilgrimage.  By the time of the New Testament the most important part of the ceremony was the celebration of thanksgiving for the Exodus and an occasion for the family to come together.

The Day of Atonement is, according to scholars, a very late festival.  The book of Leviticus, where it is described, only came into its present form in the 3rd century BC.  The best known part of the ceremony involved the ‘scapegoat’ ceremony, the confessing the sins of the whole community and transferring them onto a goat which was sent off into the desert.  The other part of the ceremony takes the High Priest into the Holy of Holies to pray for the entire nation.  Once again the efficacy of these rituals arises from the fact that they are rites given to the community by Yahweh for this purpose of removing sin.

What are we to make of the idea that the death of Jesus was in some way a ‘substitute’ for human-kind, a sacrifice that God needed in order to forgive sin?   For the ‘substitution’ idea to work, it would have to be shown that there was an understanding that Jesus was like the scapegoat carrying the sins of the world on his shoulders.  But the only author to use the imagery of the Day of Atonement is the Epistle to the Hebrews (not written by Paul) and mention of the scapegoat is entirely absent.   Hebrews 9.22 reinforces the idea that the shedding of blood and the forgiveness of sins are linked together in this God-given rite and there is no suggestion of ‘satisfying the wrath of God’.

The passages in the Old Testament that best illuminate a link between sacrifice and forgiveness are those describing the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.  Here the life of an innocent man (who may represent the whole nation) is described and his life and innocent death are seen as having the power to expiate or wash away sin.  God lays the iniquity of all on him so that he becomes a sin offering, which will cleanse the people.  The dynamic at work seems to be that an innocent good man can in some way allow his innocent suffering to effect a washing away (expiation) of sin on behalf of others.  All through their history the Jews had noticed that sin separated them from God and in these chapters of Isaiah they caught a glimpse of a new way that the suffering of the Exile might be used in some way to effect a washing away of sin.  This they linked to the old blood sacrifices of the Temple.  Although God allows this suffering, there is nothing to suggest that the Servant is ‘satisfying God’s wrath’ in any sense.

In my first attempt at this blog post I went on in more detail to discuss the Epistle to the Hebrews and the way that he understands the death of Christ to fulfil the Day of Atonement ceremony .   But neither the language of Hebrews nor the allusions to Suffering Servant narratives that are picked up in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper point to the ‘substitutionary sacrifice’ ideas that can be read out of Paul.  The conclusion of this blog post is to say that there is not one idea in the New Testament to explain the death of Christ in the language of sacrifice but several.  To say that there is one Biblical view on this topic does violence to the Biblical  text.  For myself I far prefer the Hebrews image of Christ entering heaven with humankind in his train to Paul’s language of anger and propitiation.  We have those glorious words that used to be in the Anglican ASB.  ‘Since we have a Great High Priest who has passed into the heavens …. let us draw near with confidence with boldness to approach the throne of grace’.

Let us rejoice in the diversity of ideas and images that a close reading of the New Testament gives us to have an insight into the deeper meaning of Christ’s death.  The Bible, as I shall never tire of saying, is a far more complex and diverse document than sloganised (ignorant!) preaching would indicate.  Let us celebrate this nuance and not be trapped by a preaching that wants to trap us into believing that there is only one way of talking about any particular doctrine.  The Bible in fact gives us a glorious diversity of ways of expressing truth.

To return to the theology of the death of Christ, we have, I believe, in the theology of Hebrews a well rounded and coherent symbolic account of its significance.   For all its complexity, the book has little truck with the idea that God ‘needs’ a death in order to forgive sin.  The idea is also alien to the gospel of St John.   Jesus’ words, according to John, sum up a vision close to that set forth in Hebrews.  ‘But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’   The risen ascended Jesus represents humanity and embodies it in himself.  Thus he can lift it up to God to be ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’.  That sentiment is a deeply resonant message and could be said to be normative for the whole of the New Testament.

Note:  I am taking it as read that Paul is not the author of Hebrews.  With 99% of scholars I understand this book to be a theological treatise, probably written in Alexandria in Egypt in around 65 AD.  The mention of Paul’s name in the beginning is not of itself evidence of anything, unless you hold on to a theory that all versions of scripture are protected from being corrupted by later editors.  I do not hold this view!

22 Further thoughts on vulnerability and leadership

I have already used the word ‘vulnerability’ in one of my blog posts and no doubt I shall return to it again.  The big question that hangs over cult studies and studies of abusive groups is the question: How did the individual get drawn into the group to be abused in the first place?  It is a question that will continue to puzzle some of those reading this blog post as they have been there themselves and are still unable to work how they became victims of power games by religious leaders.

The short answer to the question as to how they were drawn into the group in the first place is to say that the group or its leader were able to exploit their vulnerabilities.  They provided an answer to what was then perceived to be an acute need.  What are these vulnerabilities and needs that religious (and political) groups are able to exploit?  The first thing to be said about them is that they are very ordinary and common for the most part.  In the first place everyone alive has a need to know their value as a person.  The common expression is self-esteem.  Few people escape attacks to their self-esteem during the process of growing up and the journey into adulthood.  These attacks may come from parents who may for deeply complicated reasons resent their children and want to put them down.  Undermining of self-esteem may come from failures in the deeply competitive of world of exams, earning power and success in relationships.  For young women self-esteem may depend on success in achieving some unrealistic body shape or standard of good looks.   For any number of reasons an individual may arrive in early adulthood with a self-esteem which is less than complete.

The second area of potential vulnerability is in their success or failure in the task of belonging.  The need to belong is hard-wired into the infant and although the nature of belonging changes over the years, it is still part of everyone alive.  For many people the transition between membership of the birth-family and a wider belonging to groups in society is messy.  In the first place the birth-family may be unwilling to let the individual go and so there is a period of conflict and possibly estrangement before equilibrium is restored.  This may be a healthy rebellion of a teenager wanting to establish his or her identity.  More complicated and potentially tragic is the young person who never experienced a core experience of belonging in the birth-family.  They may have stumbled through childhood with a series of attachments which may have been violent or abusive.  The need to belong was still there but all they have to model their desire for adult belonging is a memory of being used by other people whether sexually or emotionally.

This piece would claim that everyone needs to be affirmed, to have self-esteem and to belong.  Few people alive achieve a perfect balance in these marks of identity and most people, when you scratch below the surface can be said to be wounded or vulnerable in one or both of these areas.  Of all the groups in society the most vulnerable group of all is the cohort of young people, newly making their way in the world after leaving the family home.  Many of these young people find their way to colleges and universities where the usual props of support are no longer there.  Such young people are vulnerable to the groups that promise them a solution to the pain that is caused by the cracks to their self-esteem and their lack of rootedness in this new strange world of adulthood.

The religious and political groups that recruit new members among university students are by no means all malign in their purposes.  But one does worry about any group that effectively ‘swallows-up’ an individual by offering total solutions to any areas of pain that are experienced.   Christian evangelical groups pounce on lonely disoriented students and thrust them into the totality of a social life where they no longer have to work to meet new people but are presented with an instant group of friends.  The teaching of the Fellowship may be very controlling and strict so that the student begins not only to feel ‘safe’ among the group but also to begin to share a paranoia about those outside the group, the ‘unsaved’.  Apart from anything else the full rich exploratory experience of university is snatched away from that individual almost from the first day, in favour of a group of people who think and feel alike in ways that are not healthy.   Eventually the individuals may find themselves becoming first engaged and then married to someone from within that close-knit group.  In my limited enquiries into this area of university life, I found myself questioning more than once whether these marriages could be said to have been arranged by the group rather than freely chosen.

I have given the example of students at university to illustrate what I believe to be a process whereby a religious group uses the vulnerability of individuals to draw them into a ‘total’ group.  Chris has spoken to me about the way he was drawn into his group.  In his case the group latched on to the idealism of youth and fairly swiftly exploited it to become a means of control.  I have more to say on the subject of the historical context of Chris’ conversion.  Here but also especially in America idealistic flower children were transformed into the victims of cults and hardline Christian groups.  This has been studied in an American context and is a fascinating story.

I want to finish by saying that perhaps everyone who has become a Christian as an adult has probably passed through a point of need and vulnerability.  Christian faith has been part of the answer to a problem, whether intellectual or emotional.  It is not this fact which creates a problem.  The problem is in the fact leaders of religious groups and cults are gathering groups of people together to weld them into fellowships etc without appearing to have any understanding of the vulnerabilities that are being played with and manipulated.  Of course there are times when the Christian faith has a positive part to play in helping an individual move forward spiritually and emotionally.  I will have more to say about the way that Christianity is an agent for wholeness and healing.  But equally the experience of some is that far from moving them forward, the religious leader or group has in fact caused them to regress.  They have been encouraged, effectively, to return to the safety of their birth family, a place without conflict.  This has been chosen above the realistic demands of growing up, a process that involves facing up to and dealing with conflict, uncertainty and ambiguity.  It is only by growing through uncertainty and experiment that one can reach eventually the place of maturity.  In this case it is a maturity of spirit and emotion.  That is a place well worth fighting for.  Christianity should be helping and supporting this process not getting in its way.

22 Is Evangelicalism to blame?

And more importantly is Liberalism the answer?

A Guest Blog By Dick Davies

I too suspect that the roots of abusive spiritual leadership are not so much linked to a particular theology such as evangelicalism (or for that matter liberalism). Rather they are in my opinion more linked to the way in which we hold to a particular “ism”, and use it to exert power.   I very much appreciate Stephen’s careful discrimination between the words “Evangelical” and “Fundamentalist”.

Generosity helps

I confess to be a U2 fan, and one of their songs has the lyric,  “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.  That makes sense to me.  If we worship an utterly transcendent being, then all theology should surely be provisional.  And if provisional, I would suggest also held to in a generous attitude.  And yes I am aware of the irony in saying this as an evangelical!

The idea of generosity came to me reading Brian Maclaren’s excellent book “A Generous Orthodoxy“. It is also reflected well by him in his blog at where many less “provisional”  evangelicals seem eager to pick fights!  Brian’s responses always seem to me to be most generous and gracious.

Is Liberalism the answer?

I have read a couple of books recently:  Stephen’s excellent “Ungodly Fear” and also Robin Meyers, “Saving Jesus from the Church”.  Both books come from (what looks to me as an evangelical) similar standpoints.  Both take a more classical “Liberal” approach to the Bible text.  Quite understandably both look at problems in the church, and seem to see the answers in their own theological context. But is there a bigger picture?  And if the whole answer to the abuse of spiritual power is not located in one particular theological stream, then where is it?

Philosphical changes

I think Stephen’s consideration of Psychology certainly merits further thought.  There is however another big dichotomy in the area of philosophy – in particular between the “modern”, and “post-modern”. This dichotomy is giving rise to a significant growth of evangelicals in the USA who are on the political left.  For me this movement gives great hope. These so called “red-letter Christians” emphasise a Jesus – centered orthopraxy (doing right) as distinct from orthodoxy (believing right).

More heroes less experts?

People such as Shane Claiborne are leaders of this new “red letter Christian” movement, politically & theologically radical, effectively saying not “believe what I believe” but “live like I live”.   Living with the poor, involved in their lives.

Maybe we need more discipleship and less emphasis on orthodoxy – from whichever theological standpoint?  I hate it when people use the Jesus “trump card”, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Isn’t that how he did it?

21 Misunderstanding the Old Testament prophets – unravelling the muddle

Of all the failures of teaching by fundamentalist preachers, perhaps the most striking is when a congregation is encouraged to believe that the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament is an example of biblical prophecy.  There are two massive misunderstandings at work in such teaching.  One is to perpetuate the belief that the word ‘prophecy’ in the Bible is all about the future and being able to foretell it.  The second misunderstanding is to believe that the Jews themselves believed the book of Daniel to be a prophet.

To take the second point first.  The Old Testament in its Hebrew version is divided into three sections – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.  The book of Daniel is firmly placed in the third section – the Writings.  In ancient times it was understood to be a mysterious collection of oracles and stories with little relation to the classical prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Modern scholars agree that the book was written in around 160 BC at the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian kings.  The story of this revolt is set out in the Books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha.  More serious than an ignorance of what the Jews themselves thought about Daniel is a refusal to engage with what the Old Testament understood as the nature of prophecy.  When we actually read the early prophets, writing in period from 725 – 530 BC, we find a genre of literature that is quite distinctive in type.  What it does not possess in general is an obsession about the remote future.  Whatever the use of the prophets made by Matthew in his gospel, the prophets were far more interested in what was going on in their present as well as a concern for the immediate future.

How can we typify the extensive writings of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah etc?  These writings are not easy and relatively few Christians are familiar with more than selected passages which appear of relevance to sermons heard in church.  Thus we have all heard countless times the passage about a young woman bearing a child, which is read at Christmas, but we know little about the original context of the utterance.  I find that the best and simplest way to describe prophecy is to say that it is a perspective on the events of the time in the context of an understanding of the will and mind of God.  When we use the word prophecy today in relation to the Church, we also understand it like this.  We expect that Church to interpret what is going in our society and political life and offer a critique and perspective that comes out of faith and spiritual reflection.  This is what the classical prophets in the Old Testament were about.  For many people the social comments of the prophet Amos about the behaviour of the rich in Israel towards the poor are some of the most powerful verses in the Bible.  ‘Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land  … buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.’  Amos 8.4ff.  The whole of the book of Amos is unremitting in its condemnation of an unjust society as demonstrated by the people of the northern Kingdom of Israel in the years leading up to the Assyrian invasion in 721 BC.  Amos as well as the other prophets were talking about the future but it was a future firmly rooted in the present.  Israel and Judah were both failing to live according the laws of their God.  Because of this failure the message delivered was much of the time pessimistic – society as they knew it was to be utterly destroyed.  While hope was not entirely absent (2 Isaiah), more typical is an unrelenting announcing of doom and destruction.

When we grasp that the prophets were about announcing the consequences of injustice, idolatry and greed to their own contemporaries, we begin to get a glimpse of how incredible the achievement of these individuals was.  They had stumbled across an understanding of what we today would call ‘ethics’, the secret of good behaviour grounded and rooted in their faith in Yahweh their God.  The earlier followers had been given the Ten Commandments but these rules did not reach deep into a person’s conscience but rather represent a rule for a relatively ordered society.  The prophets began to articulate something new, a way of behaviour which drew people to reflect in their personal behaviour something of the holiness of the God they sought to worship.

The ethical genius, if we can call it that, of the classical Old Testament prophets helps us to understand more clearly that Daniel is not to be counted among them.  The book is a tale of the events of the exile, told 400 years later by an author who was keen to bolster up flagging morale in the midst of a terrifying war.  It attempts to indicate that history is in the hands of God by pretending to give an accurate foretelling of the future.  No prophet from the previous period had ever attempted to set out the future history of the world in this way.  The fact that the book of Daniel does indulge in this kind of writing has meant, tragically, that many Christian apologists have assumed that all the prophets think in this way.  There are no grounds for such an assumption.  But wait, I hear someone say, does not the evangelist Matthew also see the prophets foretelling the future in his gospel?  It is true that we do of course read in Matthew’s gospel several times the phrase ‘in order that the prophet ….. might be fulfilled’.  It is thus apparent that Matthew was following a particular tradition within early Christianity that wanted to find Christ in particular passages of the Old Testament.  But just because there was this tradition does not make it wrong for us to study the Old Testament prophets in their original historical and social context.  This combining of historical and literary scholarship when applied to the prophets has given to them an amazing vitality to modern students and readers.  The prophets are seen to be what they are – living breathing witnesses of a powerful transforming religious tradition, one which is of tremendous relevance and applicability today.

The prophets, the central swathe of the Old Testament, are read by scholars and all who study them properly as revealing a genius for religious experience as well as ethical thinking.  Let us celebrate them in this way and learn from them.  It may be that the message of Jesus should also be heard today through the prism of his readiness to be a continuity of Old Testament prophecy.  Perhaps if we have the eyes to see, we will find that he does not just fulfil the Law but he is also a living embodiment of the will of God first revealed in the writing of the classical prophets of the Old Testament.

20 Life in all its fullness – or is it?

I was talking to someone about Christians – the impression that many of them give to the outside world.  According to the person I was talking to, ‘Christians’ often come over as judgemental, defensive and deeply suspicious.   There is a hesitancy about them and a complete lack of humour.  They appear to live on an alien planet and appear resentful in having to visit another world where they are not in control of the topics under discussion.  This may touch on things which cause embarrassment or even a sense of shame.  Above all, this person told me, if you look into their eyes, there is a kind of emptiness there.  It is as though the original personality has fled and they have been taken over by a kind of phantom identity, marked by an anxiety to please and be ‘right’ and ‘good’ like a nervous child seeking the approval of their teachers and parents.

This description of a Christian is not of course fair to all Christians by any means but I imagine my reader can bring to mind an encounter which fits this description more or less.  In my psychological commentary on fundamentalism I commented on the way that social identity theory indicates how certain people hand over their personal identity to the group identity.  Such individuals existing in and through the group will have virtually nothing of their own personality left to them.  They find their aliveness only when they are part of the group, the ‘we’.

In the English language we speak about individuals having a powerful presence.  By that we mean that when they are around people are all aware of them.  Their presence somehow exudes itself outwards even without any words being spoken or any actions done.  This word ‘presence’ should be balanced by the opposite which is ‘absence’.  Sometimes we find ourselves with someone about whom all that can be said is that they display a complete ‘absence’.  There is nothing about their posture or facial expression that shows any engagement with what is going on, the words being spoken or the dynamics of the encounter.  The ability to be in a place and yet absent from all that is going on seems to be a sad extreme manifestation of what happens to some individuals who sacrifice vivacity, humour, personality and a general aliveness in exchange for the doubtful privilege of being part of a tight knit group who have been ‘saved’.  Such individuals, it could be argued, have gone in the opposite direction to the path indicated by Jesus when he said, ‘I have come that they may have life, life in all its abundance.’

Way back in the Middle Ages in the 1330s, the Franciscans arrived in England and set up a house in the part of Oxford now known as St Ebbes.  They lived very austere lives with little in the way of creature comforts.  And yet these young men were known for their radiant joy and happiness.  This was expressed by their unending capacity for laughter.  We don’t know exactly the source of their laughter, whether it was because they saw the absurdities of life or whether it was simply an overflowing of inner joy.  But whatever the cause of this laughter it indicated a closeness, I believe, to the ‘fullness of life’ that Jesus had commended.  Humour does indeed play a part in the Christian life.  For us too it indicates an ability not to take ourselves too seriously and also to see through the pomposities of hypocrisy and power.  Laughter is also deeply social and binds us with other people in a way that few other things can.  I would like to think of heaven as a place of unending joy and humour and I am sure that when we speak about everlasting joy, we are also referring to everlasting laughter.

One aim for the Christian life whether for ourselves or for others is to find all that promotes abundant life.  We speak of helping life to flourish and this must always be our aim.  Simultaneously we must work to prevent all that narrows life and that takes from it zest, energy and light.  That will mean that we are not content to allow or promote life-denying forms of belief and practice within the Christian life.  This blog is perhaps playing a small part in communicating what ‘fullness of life’ might mean.  It is a way of life that encourages joy, humour, happiness and mutuality.  It is also a way of life that wars against narrowness, meanness, suppression of spirit and all that denies human flourishing.  May that deadness of spirit never be seen in us as we try to follow the example of Christ who calls us to experience life in all its  fullness.