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The Voice of The Scapegoat: Part 1, The Crisis of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

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So many of us were saddened last week to hear of the passing of René Girard. It is difficult to describe just how influential and important Girard has been for many of us. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that René Girard saved my faith and the faith of many of my questioning students. When disillusioned evangelical students come to me with questions about the violence in the Old Testament or the blood-thirsty God of penal substitutionary atonement my very first question is "Have you ever read René Girard?"

In the very first year of this blog, 2006, I did a series entitled "The Voice of the Scapegoat" working through Mark Heim's book Saved from Sacrifice, my favorite introduction to a Girardian reading of the bible. To honor the life and legacy of René Girard I've dusted off and edited those posts, seven in all, to introduce (or reintroduce) you to one of the most potent and life changing readings of the cross.

In Saved from Sacrifice Heim situates his reading of Girard in the modern crisis surrounding penal substitutionary atonement (henceforth, PSA). Over the last few centuries in the Western church PSA has grown to be the dominant lens on the crucifixion of Jesus. Succinctly, PSA claims that due to our sin God's wrath was kindled against us. Or, alternatively, our sin created a debt so large we were unable to pay it. Jesus, in PSA, steps in and dies in our place. Jesus, being the perfect sacrifice, both satisfies the wrath of God and passes on his merit to us (which we claim by faith) canceling our debt of sin.

This formulation is so common I don't know why I'm even reviewing it. For many Christians this is the only view they have of the cross. Questioning PSA is, for some, tantamount to questioning Christianity itself. Which really is a stunning situation.

The situation is stunning because Eastern Christianity doesn't emphasize PSA. Nor was it emphasized by the early church. Look at all the sermons in the books of Acts. PSA can't be found in any of the very first gospel sermons. The focus on and intensification of PSA in the West is a fairly recent phenomenon which can be traced back to St. Anselm and the Reformation.

These missteps have proved costly to the church because the foundational ideas of PSA are increasingly untenable for many Christians, if not outright objectionable and offensive.

Heim begins Saved from Sacrifice by describing the most significant of these objections. The one I would like to highlight is the view of God lurking behind PSA. To quote Heim,
...traditional interpretations of the crucifixion are criticized for moral failings, especially the picture they paint of God...If a debt is owed to God why can't God simply forgive it, as Jesus apparently counsels others to do? If God is ransoming us from other powers, why does God have to submit to their terms? If this is God's wise and compassionate plan for salvation, why does it require such violence? The idea that God sent his Son to be sacrificed for us is indicted here for impugning the moral character of God. (p. 25)
PSA works its great power because it is a vision of rescue. We are saved. Death was intended for us, but Jesus steps in to "take our place." What is so morally problematic about this? Later in the book Heim discusses the formulation of the cross worked about by Anselm:
If Christ steps in to intercept the blow meant for us, where does that blow itself come from? It is occasioned by our sin (so far, a view fully in accord with the general tradition). Anselm's departure is to insist with new systematic rigor that it is actually coming from God. What we need to be rescued from is the deserved wrath and punishment of God. God wishes to be merciful, and so God becomes the one to be punished... (p. 299)
The problem with Anselm's formulation is twofold:
To return to our simple image about Jesus stepping in between us and an evil bearing down on us, we can say that Anselm unequivocally states that what is bearing down on us is God and God's wrath. This radically bifurcates the God of justice and the God of forgiveness, and it appears to require a plan of salvation that sets Christ and God against each other. (p. 300-301)
In the end we have an emotional and theological puzzle. First, the bible unequivocally states that we were, in some profound way, "saved" and "rescued" by the cross. But saved from what? PSA says we are being saved from God.

Saved from God? That surely is confused.

The second puzzle is that the cross is a bloody sacrifice. Why is a God of love so blood-thirsty?

Heim points out other problems with PSA. I've just focused on these issues because they are the ones I've most struggled with. I rejected PSA a long time ago for just those reasons: I could not believe in a confused and blood-thirsty God.

But to make this rejection leaves one in an awkward relationship with the bible. Clearly, the bible is a bloody document. And the cross is intimately tied up with the notion of "sacrifice," a theme that links both the Old and New Testaments. So, to reject PSA on moral and theological grounds leaves you holding a lot of problematic texts. Bloody, sacrificial texts. Do we have to reject these texts? As someone who loves the bible, I don't want to. So what do we do?

Enter the work of Rene Girard. As Heim notes, the work of Girard allows us to adopt these bloody sacrificial texts in a way that not only surmounts the problems of PSA but replaces them with an amazing new vista. What was before considered to be morally repugnant--bloody sacrifice--is now adopted as critical feature of the bible and, amazingly, a feature that places both God and Jesus over against the violence. As Heim states in his final chapter (p. 294):
The way forward is not to go around all these elements, but to go through them, integrating them in the biblical vision of God's work to overcome scapegoating sacrifice. The true alternative to distorted theologies of atonement will not be one that says less about the cross, but one that says more.
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wdavidreynolds
2648 days ago
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Nolensville, TN 37135
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Should A Christian Be President of the United States?

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Should A Christian Be President of the United States? According to news reports, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president of the United States was asked whether a Muslim should be president of the United States and he responded that he did not think so. Later, according to other news reports, he “clarified” that [Read More...]
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wdavidreynolds
2697 days ago
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Nolensville, TN 37135
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A Lesser Atonement

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It has long been known that people tend to see what they think they are seeing. This is particularly the case where what we think is familiar and expected. The case of “mistaken identity” flows from our assumptions and expectations. This is no where more true than when we are reading Scripture. If a passage ... Read More ›

The post A Lesser Atonement appeared first on Glory to God for All Things.

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wdavidreynolds
2873 days ago
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I grew up being taught - and thereby accepting - penal substitutionary atonement as truth. I rejected it a few years ago, but the church I attend is somewhat obsessed with it. Reading this does my heart good.
Nolensville, TN 37135
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Militarization: The sin of our nation and our need for repentance

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If we are called to forsake violence and instead unconditionally love and forgive others, does God also do this or does God instead act to violently punish the unrepentant? What does the New Testament teach us about this? We are supposed to be like Jesus, but is God like Jesus?
In a recent interview with Brad Jersak I explained that we see a clear movement in the NT towards an understanding of God's justice as acting to make things right, i.e. restorative justice, or as Paul calls it in Romans, "the justice of God" (dikaiosune theos). At the some time, we also find some NT authors who retain an understanding of God's justice as violently punishing and harming evildoers. The term the NT uses here is not "justice" (which is understood throughout the NT as restorative rather than retributive) but "judgment," which is destructive.

I then said that I think we need to move away from the view of God as violent and punishing, recognizing that the trajectory the NT puts us on should move us to a more Christlike image of God who acts through goodness to overcome evil rather than using violence and harm as a means to bring about the good.

In response, a reader pushes back on that idea. Here's the comment:
"Loved the discussion...brought more stuff into focus and clarified and stabilized more that I read from your book. But I'm not on the same page with you when it comes to forgiveness. If we refuse to repent from un-forgive-ness how can God forgive us? The NT makes it clear that we who hear the good news need to repent and believe on Jesus if we want to be saved. The Lord's Prayer comes to mind on how we are forgiven as we forgive"
In other words, God will not forgive us if we do not forgive. If we do not repent of our unforgiveness, we can expect God's punishment and judgment.

Let's consider this. When we think about this today, it is often in the context of our suburban lives, and so forgiveness revolves around interpersonal conflict. So when we think of who we are forgiving, what typically comes to mind is forgiving someone for hurting our feelings, rather than forgiving a person for, say killing a loved one or for putting us in prison unjustly.

The context at the time of Jesus was quite different. This audience was of a persecuted minority suffering violence and oppression, and the consideration was how they should respond. Should they take up the sword and kill their oppressors? The message of Jesus is that instead they should seek to overcome evil and oppression with love.

So when the NT authors speak of the stakes involved, and frame it in life-and-death terms, this is quite literal. That's why many have suggested that when they speak of judgment, they are speaking of the very real here-and-now consequences for taking up the way of the sword. They also saw the oppression of Rome as ripe for judgment with all of its violence and oppression. It was about to implode.

I can see this increasingly in my own country. We are becoming more and more violent, more militaristic -- both in how we deal with conflict abroad through drone strikes, torture, assassinations, and so on, and also in how the police a home have become increasingly militarized -- frequently using SWAT teams for routine situations and quickly reaching for their guns when there are much better ways to deal with a situation. This has led to protests across the country, and one thing is clear to me, we have here a huge problem that stems from America's tendency to glorify and put their faith in violence.

If you are a minority today in America, you might feel like they did in the time of Jesus under Rome. The message of the gospel has then a relevance in that context of oppression and injustice that it simply does not for those living in a sheltered and privileged environment. We live in Rome, and just as was the case in Rome there are those who lived in relative comfort unaware of the suffering of those in the lower classes. Jesus calls us to open our eyes to their need, and to break away from our tendency to look down on those who are less fortunate -- the poor, those in prison, and so on. It's about empathy and compassion, and our country seems to be moving away from that.

When the New Testament calls for repentance it is calling for a repentance from the way of violence. It is not simply addressing the personal and individual spheres, but the social sphere. It is saying that if we want to see change we cannot take the way of Rome (or the way of America) and instead must take a different way characterized by restoration, forgiveness, and love of our oppressors and those who wrong us. If we instead stay on the path of violence, this will result in tears and hurt for us. 

The point here is not to describe God's character, but to describe how we need to act in the world if we wish to end oppression and bring about justice. This is not a matter of God forgiving us. God has already loved us "while we were still sinners" in the incarnation (stooping down among us in our brokenness), the crucifixion (giving his life for sinners), and the resurrection (paving the way for us to overcome death and sin). God is willing to love us, and was before the cross. It's not about God being reconciled to us, but us needing to be reconciled to God, and that has to do with us being good, being loving, with us stopping the spiral of hurting and being hurt. Those who love as Jesus loved are the ones Jesus calls his "mother and brothers." Those who care for the poor are the ones Jesus says "well done" to.

So we absolutely do need to turn from having faith in violence. We have made an idol of our firepower, and trust in it instead of trusting in Jesus and his way. We need to repent of that. Especially those of us who are in positions of power and privilege. We call ourselves a "Christian nation," but we do not follow the way of Jesus and instead are the worst among Western countries when it comes to things like guns and prisons and money spent on war. If we want to look for sin in the land, this is it. This is our sin, and it is huge.

What I don't believe is that God calls us to seek the way of restorative justice, radical forgiveness, and enemy love while himself using the way of violent punishment and torture. After all, how else can you understand conscious eternal torment in hell other than as torture? This is to me an understanding of God that legitimizes the idea that those in authority can use harm and hurt to bring about justice. It is a very easy move to go from a picture of God punishing evil to a claim that those with the authority of the state can wield violence in God's name themselves, "For rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). So we begin with the idea of God punishing, and it's a quick jump to "Christian" nations taking up the way of violence. That's where we are at now. This is our nation's sin. It is the sin of Rome.

At the time of the NT they believed, as did everyone else at the time, that beating people made them better. So they beat slaves, they beat children, they beat lawbreakers and rebels. Today we know that abuse does not make a person better, it makes them worse. Punishment, i.e. inflicting harm and suffering, is a way that simply does not work if our goal is reform and restoration, if our goal is to make things good and right. It does not work because it is based on an incorrect understanding of how humans function, and what leads us to repentance and reform. It makes things worse, not better. It does not bring about justice, it just perpetuates harm. Hurting people is not good, it is hurtful.

I can see how being hurt is the natural consequence of our hurting others. That's judgment, that's karma, that's sewing and reaping, but it is decidedly not the gospel. The gospel is about acting to reverse that course by the means of love and good. That is the way we are to follow in, and it is the way God demonstrates for us in Jesus.

So we do need to take up the way of forgiveness and love. We do need to repent. If we instead continue on the path of militarism and violence this will lead to hell on earth. However God in Jesus does not model that way of force and violence, but models for us the way of overcoming hurt with love. That is what God revealed in Christ looks like. God in Christ undoes the image of the God of war.


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wdavidreynolds
2885 days ago
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Nolensville, TN 37135
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In Christ Alone Revisited

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I used to love the song “In Christ Alone,” but the more I studied the contexts of ancient Near Eastern covenants, the more unsettled I became in using “blood atonement” as something that paid a price in some cosmic accounting firm. Truth is, blood in the ancient Near Eastern context of Biblical covenants held blood […]
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wdavidreynolds
2917 days ago
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Nolensville, TN 37135
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The World's Best Pharisee

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When the Gospels speak negatively of the "Pharisees" and in John's Gospel more generally of "the Jews" one can easily get the mistaken idea that all Jews were legalistic, angry, and opposed to Jesus and his ministry of caring for people.

That's simply not true. 
 
What makes this misunderstanding especially tragic is that the general impression of Jews being "legalistic" and "hypocritical" that we can get from (a misreading of) the Gospels has led to Christian persecution of Jews over the centuries. That means this is not only a wrong way to read the Gospels, but one that has led to real harm.

So let me set the record straight: Jesus was a Jew, and the conflict we see in the Gospels between Jesus and those identified as "the Pharisees" is more properly understood as an intra-religious debate within Judaism between two competing ways of understanding faithfulness to Torah.
More specifically, what we see in that conflict is best understood as a conflict between Jesus and the fundamentalism of his day. That conflict was real, and the Gospels record that conflict.

What's important to understand here is that fundamentalism -- then and now -- is not so much about what particular doctrines one holds to (indeed, doctrinally Jesus and the Pharisees had a lot in common), and much more about one's character and maturity -- about how we act and treat others.

There is a famous story about two of the key leaders of the Pharisees at the time of Jesus, i.e. the Second Temple Period -- Hillel and Shammai. Both were given a challenge by a Gentile who said,
 
"I'll convert on the condition that you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand here on one foot." 
 
Shammai's reaction was to try to beat the person with a stick for his insolence. Hillel in contrast responded,
"That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn."    (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
Note, first of all, how in-line Hillel is with Jesus (or rather I should say how much Jesus was influenced by Hillel, since Hillel pre-dates Jesus). It's easy to see why many scholars believe Jesus got his "golden rule" directly from Hillel, and one can certainly also observe that Jesus' approach to Scripture mirrors Hillel's focus on it leading to love. For Hillel the law is there to serve people, not to burden them down. To paraphrase Jesus, the law was made for people, not people for the law. 
 
If all of the Pharisees had been like Hillel there would have been no conflict. But with Hillel’s death (10 CE) the Shammaites (followers of Rabbi Shammai) took control of the Sanhedrin and remained in control until the destruction of the Temple. The Pharisees we encounter in the Gospels appear to be ‘Shammaites’ rather than followers of Hillel (as Jesus arguably was). 
 
It did not stay this way however within Judaism. Just as the Gospels record constant disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees, within Rabbinic literature there are over 350 disputes recorded between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, and just as in the Gospels, in the Rabbinic literature the focus is always on Hillel's way of love over and against Shammai's harshness. As the Zohar puts it (Ra'aya Meheimna 3:245a), Shammai's way was based on severity and power (guvurah), while Hillel's was based on grace and mercy (hesed). Sound familiar?
 
Let's notice a second thing about Hillel's response to the Gentile standing on one foot. Hillel's answer is not only focused on love and grace, but he does so with a sense of humor. That's so important. Our political and religious debates are desperately in need of that. Humor is a crucial element of Jewish theology, and we can see a lot of that humor in the teaching of Jesus and Paul if you have your eyes open for it.
 
In contrast to this response of wisdom, compassion, and good-willed humor exemplified by Hillel, Shammai instead gets really angry and wants to hit people.
That's fundamentalism. 
 
Again, fundamentalism at its core is not about particular beliefs so much as it is about a way of dealing with people that is characterized by anger, judgmentalism, and close-mindedness. We constantly read stories in the Gospel where we are told that the religious leaders "tried to throw Jesus off a cliff" or "tried to kill Jesus, but he escaped into the crowds." That was what the fundamentalism of Jesus' day looked like. 
 
I hope the irony is not lost on you that rabbinic Judaism, in siding with Hillel over Shammai, has a lot in common with Jesus and his way, while many conservative Christians seem to have adopted an approach that looks a lot more like that of the Pharisees we encounter in the New Testament.
As the example of Hillel shows, not all Pharisees were fundamentalists, just as not all Evangelical Christians are today. Being a fundamentalist is not connected to one particular group or belief. We see fundamentalist atheists, too. (Bill Maher seems to be moving more and more in the direction of fundamentalism lately). Of course, let me hasten to say, not all atheists are like that either!
The question then is, are we focused on love like Hillel and Jesus? Or are we judgmental, close-minded, and angry? Do we feel it is more important to treat people right, or to be "right"? Are we trolling the internet, looking to put someone in their place, looking for someone to beat with our metaphorical sticks?
I know it's really easy to read that above paragraph and think of someone else who fits that description, someone over there who does this. But remember Hillel's words, don't become what you hate. Instead of pointing fingers and shifting blame we need to instead put the searchlight on ourselves, to remove the plank from our own eye, as Jesus said. 
 
Properly understood, the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees as it is presented in the Gospels is not at all about a clash between two religions, rather it shows how all of us can easily get our priorities wrong, get focused on the wrong thing, and as a result we can be total jerks and think we are in the right, that we are fighting the good fight.

This applies to how we have treated our LGBT brothers and sisters. It applies to how we treat our Muslim neighbors. It's about a way of being, and that way should be one focused on love, on seeing the one we regard as "other" and even as "enemy" as a human being beloved by God. We need to stop otherizing people, and start humanizing them. That's at the heart of Jesus' way, and if we read the Gospels and instead end up otherizing and blaming some other group like the Pharisees, then we've missed the whole point of the gospel.
 
In Jesus' version of the Golden Rule he alters the focus from Hillel's. Instead of not doing what we hate having done to us (which is already a huge moral advance), Jesus says to treat others the way we want to be treated. This is preemptive love. It's not just refraining from evil, but actively sewing good. It's a way to break the cycle of blame and hurt. Being the first to forgive, the first to say "I'm sorry."

Okay, I'm done. You can stop standing on one foot now.

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toddgrotenhuis
2942 days ago
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Indianapolis
wdavidreynolds
2944 days ago
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Nolensville, TN 37135
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