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Fiat_LVX_Digest V06 #5

Subject: Re: Fiat_LVX_Digest V06 #5
Date: Tue, 11 Jun 1996 15:50:49 -0400

> I am also asking myself how the doctrine of
>vicarious atonement ( I.E. Christ died for your sake) enter the Christian

Elias (and all),

Your question of where "Jesus died for your sins" comes into it is a good 
one. I go into this at length in my dissertation-in-progress _The Gifts 
of God: The Re-Mythologization of the Eucharist_. I'll be quoting from it 
here, and I'll try to keep it short. :-)

The earliest understanding of atonement was just Jesus waking people up 
to the fact that the social and religious stratification of society was 
not God's idea, and that God loved and accepted even the most "unclean" 
of people and valued them equally with the religious elite (Jesus seems 
to suggest that God even likes the poor in spirit more than the pompous, 
but then Jesus liked hyperbole). Thus, the earliest theory of atonement 
was the radical egalitarianism modeled by Jesus that said that the common 
people were already at one with God and that it was the powerful and the 
elite that needed reconciliation (or to be "toppled from their thrones.")

But since the imperialization of Christianity, there have been basically 
two theories of the atonement that really caught on: 

1) the Divinization or Christus Victor tradition and 
2) the Sacrificial or Penal theory. 

The Christus Victor is the earlier and still the theory embraced by 
Eastern orthodoxy.
It arose out of the persecutions experienced by the early church. As 
their persecutions increased and Christ's return was delayed, the church 
began looking backwards at the story of Christ for their inspiration and 
encouragement. This they found in the Resurrection. 

Later to be termed the "Christus Victor" theory of the atonement, this 
tradition aided the early church by asserting that "suffering is a 
prelude to triumph and is in itself an illusion." [Brown/Parker in 
Brown/Bohn 5] In this tradition, Jesus is painted as "the conquering 
hero," recalling the Jews' anticipation of a militant messiah, but 
transporting the drama of the conflict to a more cosmic scale. Jesus sets 
himself up as bait for Satan, who "seeks to devour human beings." 
{Brown/Parker 5] When Jesus dies and is swallowed by death, he has 
craftily gained access to Satan's stronghold, the underworld. There, on 
his home turf, Satan is confronted with the messiah in all "his" glory, 
and is utterly overwhelmed and his power broken forever.

In the West the Christus Victor theory of the atonement was supplanted by 
the "Satisfaction" theory, which was most definitively articulated by St. 
Anselm. According to Brown and Parker, the Satisfaction theory states that,

"Because of sin, humanity owed a debt to God which it could not pay. Only 
by the death of God's own Son could God receive satisfaction... God's 
demand that sin be punished is fulfilled by the suffering of the innocent 
Jesus... God is portrayed as the one who cannot reconcile "himself" to 
the world becaues "he" has been royally offended by sin, so offended that 
no human being can do anything to overcome "his" sense of offense. Like 
Lear, God remains estranged from the children God loves because God's 
honor must be preserved... It is to free God that the Son submits to 
death, sacrificing himslef...out of overwhelming love for the two 
alienated parties: God and the human family." [Brown+Parker 7-8]

Sometimes known as the "penal" theory of atonement, this view emphasizes 
the crucifixion and Christ's death as the crucial event in salvation 
history, rather than the resurrection. Far less abstract, this theology 
would have been much more easily grasped and assimilated by pagan 
converts in the "barbaric" West for whom animal sacrifice was a more 
familiar context to understand the Eucharist than neo-Platonism.

As you might guess, I prefer the Eastern view. I think the absurdity of 
the sacrificial view of atonement would be much clearer if we weren't 
culturally conditioned to accept it as default reality. The question to 
ask about this, the "penal" theory of atonement is this: how can a God, 
who in Jesus told us that we were never to exact vengeance, that we were 
to forgive each other perpetually without retribution, demand of us 
behavior that God "himself" is unwilling or unable to perform? If God's 
sense of honor has been so offended by human sin God cannot stand to be 
in relationship with us, why can God not simply forgive as we are 
instructed to do, rather than mandating that some "innocent and spotless 
victim" bear the brunt of "his" resivoir of wrath? The ability of humans 
to do this when God will not or cannot logically casts humanity as God's 
moral superior. This is of course absurd!

I hope I have not stepped on any toes. I bought the "penal" line for a 
long time, but I now see it as an oppressive theology, and inauthentic in 
light of Jesus' teaching. It might have some salvific content for men, 
who need to be taught to sacrifice, but not for women or oppressed 
people, for whom a theology of sacrifice is just another controlling 
agent to keep them under the thumbs of European men. IMHO, of course.

Hope this wasn't too long!

Fr. John R. Mabry (a white European male who is learning a lot about what 
it means to be the "Community of God.")

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