Archive for March 5th, 2007

Hollywood Goes for the Jugular

March 5, 2007

Sometimes I can’t help myself – I simply have to comment. Larry King, commenting on the controversy raised by the Discovery Channel’s latest silliness – the bones of Jesus – asks the seminal question: “Can this be the end of the Easter Bunny?”

 Surely both East and West could get together and issue a joint communique: “There is no such thing as an Easter bunny,” and that would help Hollywood feel better.

But I am personally reassured that my television doesn’t need to be on much during this Lenten season if that is what CNN takes for “news.”

Perhaps T.S. Eliot was right when he saw the world end, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Mark my words, they’ll be attacking Santa Claus next. Is nothing sacred?

Some Modest Thoughts on the Atonement

March 5, 2007


The doctrine of the Atonement, that is, the doctrine of how exactly it is that Christ has reconciled us to God, is a matter of much discussion. For some, particularly among conservative Protestants, the Atonement is defined by the model of the penal substitution (Christ bore the wrath of the Father that we deserved and thus made propitiation for us). Some have rejected this model as either bound too strongly to a model of God’s wrath and justice that cannot be supported by the Fathers or Scripture. There are other models of the atonement (I think particularly of the three different models that Gustav Aulen described in his magisterial work Christus Victor). There is some excellent work being done today that examines again the model(s) of the atonement found in Scripture (here I think primarily of Finlan’s Problems with Atonement) and offers the observation that there are a fair variety of images used but still looks primarily at the image of union with Christ.

What I offer today is something far more modest, to say the least. And it is in saying the least that I find the greatest hope in discussions of the atonement.

Though there are early discussions of the atonement, none are particularly conclusive. None of the early councils of the Church focused on this as a matter of critical debate. The various anaphora of the Church (the prayers of the Eucharist) all offered language that described the atonement, but even there some variety can be found (even in a single anaphora).

Though the Nicene Creed was not placed in its final form until 381 (not including later Western changes that carry no weight in the East) it nevertheless represents one of the earliest statements of faith of the Church. Indeed, I would argue (and I’m not alone in this) that Creedal statements (what St. Irenaeus would call the hypothesis of Scripture) predate the Scriptures themselves. Had not such hypostheses existed, Scripture could not have been written in a manner that agreed with itself.

We can find early evidences of such stated hypotheses in places such as St. Paul’s 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (3-5).

Here St. Paul uses the very specific language of Tradition. “I delivered,” (literally “I traditioned”) “what I received” (what had been traditioned to him). What follows is clearly some echo of the Baptismal Creeds that were part of the Church’s life from its beginning. These statements of the faith represented the Apostolic hypothesis, the summary of the faith, the scaffolding on which all Christian thought would be erected.

In the Nicene Creed we have a very short summary of the ministry of Christ:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man. And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried. And the third day rose again in accordance with the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Please forgive the elipsis, I do not mean to treat that statement of the Creed with any less importance – but my focus here is on atonement. My modest suggestion is that the Creed in no way ignores atonement, but simply offers this short summary of the economy of our salvation as the very hypothesis by which we are to approach Scripture and its interpretation.

Thus, all that Christ did, from the incarnation to His ascension and judgement itself, is “for us men and for our salvation.” God has not acted in any way other than for our salvation.

Is this asking us to say too little? Should the details of the atonement be described more fully?

There are numerous models to be found in Scripture. Indeed, Finlan notes that sometimes St. Paul will include more than one model in a single sentence. But all of them are in agreement with the hypothesis we hear in the Creed. Why should more be required?

More may be said, if it agrees with the Creed and if it does no damage to the hypothesis offered there, but none can be enshrined as “the doctrine of the atonement.” Such a modest proposal as mine leaves us free to discuss “problems with atonement” and to see strengths and weaknesses of various images, from the point of view of the Apostolic hypothesis.

The Church’s use of councils through the centuries has ever been only to defend the understanding of salvation as given us in the Apostolic teaching. The use of councils to multiply doctrines where no need exists is an abuse of our conciliar life. Councils should be seen as “necessities” but only for purposes of crisis and where the understanding of our salvation is endangered. Thus the Eastern Church has relatively few Councils.

We do better to pray than to argue doctrine unless the latter is of utter necessity. For many, it has become something of a parlor game, and this has been to the detriment of Christianity and even of our salvation. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes less is enough. This is my modest proposal.

Sailing to Byzantium

March 5, 2007


I recommend for your reading interests, a series on The Undercroft, which, thus far, is doing an excellent job of setting forth matters of the faith. Today he looks at Scripture and the Church. It’s a good read. I offer a short quote:

Where, then, is the record of holy souls in the first centuries, raising their voices and shedding their blood for the sufficiency and pre-eminence of scripture against the rise of usurping “Catholicism”? Where are their writings? Where are their witnesses? Where, for that matter, is any indication that Our Lord intended New Testament Scripture (which He never mentions) rather than, and apart from, the “teaching Church” (of which He speaks in the most exalted terms) to provide the sole, sufficient, infallible rule of faith? From my point of view this complete absence of any “parallel tradition” is itself sufficient to render incredible the Protestant account of Christianity, before even beginning to address the hopeless internal contradictions inherent in sola scriptura itself.

I look forward to the rest of his series.