Anyway, Phil Johnson linked to a very long and stimulating essay by N.T. Wright about the current British whoopla over the atonement, and I liked that essay pretty well. But, of course, what’s a blog if it is only gushing praise? The good Bishop said this at the beginning of his essay:
In any case, I am one of those who think it good that the church has never formally defined 'the atonement', partly because I firmly believe that when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn't give them a theory, he gave them a meal. Of course, the earliest exponent of that meal (Paul, in 1 Corinthians) insists that it matters quite a lot that you understand what you are about as you come to share in it; but still it is the meal, not the understanding, that is the primary vehicle of meaning. What is more, I happen to believe, as a reader of the New Testament, that all the great 'theories' about atonement do indeed have roots there, and that the better we understand the apostolic testimony the better we see how they fit together.And let’s be honest: I usually steer clear of getting into the boat with N.T. Wright because he’s a lot more, um, esoteric than I tend to be. He paints with a variety of brushes, and he has an oil palate; I tend to have a fat black Sharpie and 16 very nice Pantone-numbered art markers because I’m doing this for a less-refined audience.
Before we begin with the comic book characters and the angry eyebrows, this essay by Wright has a lot to appreciate. For example, he makes a fine point about the caricatures of the atonement which many people reject rather than considering the actual atonement presented in Scripture – and as far as he goes here, I’d have to agree with him. His consideration of the very poorly constructed “is God a child abuser?” objection to the manner in which God deals with sin through Christ at the Cross has a lot of good in it. And his view that the atonement has more to do with love than wrath in an interesting perspective, even if I can’t wholly say, “that’s exactly what I’d say about that.”
So if you have two days to read this essay 2 or 3 times and think about what’s good in it and what’s bad, I recommend it for your information and intellectual physical fitness.
Which leads me to this statement I have cited, above. You know: I feel tortured sometimes when I read these really smart guys because (IMO) they frequently know exactly what they are saying, but they say it in terms which are intentionally controversial. That probably says something about me because a lot of you feel that way about what I do here. Anyway, when Bishop Wright says something like the above, it sort of makes me want to check all of his good work to see if the mistake he makes in this one piece of bad work isn’t there in some genetic mutation.
Here’s what I think: I think somehow N.T. Wright, who has an extraordinarily- robust view of the operation of covenant and teleology or purpose in the work of Jesus Christ, here suddenly becomes a one-note wonder – a guy who, after berating all kinds of people for being reductive or dismissive or careless, fumbles the NT in a sort of reductive way.
Listen: I can buy, in general theological terms, into the idea that the meal, the table, is the central act of worship – that it has some analogical rather than propositional value in promulgating what the NT repeatedly calls “the Gospel”. I think there’s no question to that at all. And I think that in any case, however we perceive the relationship of that analogy to ourselves, we are demonstrating our identity in Christ by doing that in memory of Him. Amen?
I can also stand next to, without feeling all weird, the idea that somehow God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled in Christ because of, or perhaps in spite of, the fact that Israel failed to do what Christ was able and willing to do. I think that’s a good enough covenantal view as long as you don't start demanding that it is definitive or exclusive – but I think it also has some problems in that as far as the covenants go, Israel was willing to do the “temple” work of the covenant, but wasn’t willing to do the “circumcision” work of the covenant. That is, God’s complaint with Israel turned out to be that he didn’t want sacrifice so much as He wanted obedience, and right-heartedness. It’s funny how Israel was willing to do all kinds of religious observance except, as Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees, the “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness”.
But I have a problem when Bishop Wright – or anyone – reduces the object of the Gospel to the Lord’s table, especially when he says, “when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn't give them a theory, he gave them a meal”. That’s a somewhat non-linear and non-comprehensive view of how Jesus spoke about being the Christ Himself.
For example – and I would agree with Bishop Wright that many people can’t find the Gospel in the Evangels, nor do they try – it is presented in Mark 8 and again in Luke 9 and Matthew 16 that when Jesus asked the Apostles, “who do you say that I am,” and Peter, prompted by the Holy Spirit, says, “you are the Messiah”, Jesus doesn’t say, “Now take this bread and eat it, and drink the cup of the new covenant.” Luke’s robust version of what comes next is
- And [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.
Why rebuke Jesus if Jesus isn’t expressing something – which I think is treated unjustly if we call it a “theory”, since it is God’s view of God and not some inductive piece of analysis – of a particular, propositional nature which is either offensive or confusing?
And that’s really not all there is to it. On the road to Emmaus, after the resurrection, Christ says this to Cleopas in Luke 24:
- O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?"
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
And before this gets away from us in the meta or at someone else’s blog, the question of what happens at the end of this story of Cleopas is critical – because someone is going to pull a J.D. Crossan on us and say that only after the meal did they know Christ himself. Listen: when Cleopas comments to his companion about what Christ told them on the road as he interpreted Moses and all the Prophets, the question was not, “is this a parable about Jesus,” but “wasn’t this man about to tell us what God has promised to do and now has done?” It is not the meal which reveals to them Moses and the Prophets: it is the words of Christ, the explanation he gives them of the Scripture.
Christ was not just a performance artist. Christ was about being the Word of God. That means He was about doing what God set out to do, and, as He said explicitly in the sermon on the Mount, to fulfill the Law.
It is reductionistic to try to read the rest of the NT through the lens of one ordinance. That’s why it’s wrong to hang so much on baptism; that’s why it’s wrong to hang so much on the eucharist. Those things are consequential, not principle.
Maybe – just maybe – my problem is that I’m a comic book guy and Bishop Wright is painting frescos in a cathedral, or very nuanced portraits in a baroque style. But when we read things like this, I wonder if he’s really trying to represent the subject he’s painting at all.