A Lesser Atonement
By Fr. Stephen Freeman, March 28, 2015
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 nowhere more true than when we are reading Scripture. If a passage has years of associations, it is almost impossible to see anything else. I have noticed this to particularly be the case when Christians are reading and thinking about the death of Christ.
For a large number of contemporary Christians, the suffering and death of Christ are clearly seen as punishment, and as punishment for our sake. All that He endures, He endures for us and in our place. The suffering Christ is a substitute for my suffering. He takes upon Himself punishment that rightly belonged to me.
When it is asserted (as I often do) that the Scriptures say nothing of the sort, the response can be one of incredulity. “How can you say that? It’s obvious!” However, it is not obvious. Indeed, it is not there. Christ is not our substitute.
Recently, a priest shared a question with me regarding the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53. He had been pressed to explain how such a passage is not about the substitutionary atoning work of Christ:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him. (Isaiah 53.4-6 NASB)
Also offered was the passage in Galatians that reads:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on A tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3.13-14)
The heart of the question is about the controlling metaphor, the root story of the atonement. For the verses cited do not spell out a substitutionary atonement. They me be read that way, if the reader assumes that the back-story is the punishment of the substituted Christ. But the back-story, the “controlling metaphor” must be understood before the passages are interpreted.
The controlling metaphor of the substitutionary atonement is that of the justice of God that must be satisfied. Our sin has engendered a debt of injustice that must be paid. Christ is seen as accepting the punishment that was our just desert. The payment having once been made need only be accepted. Its acceptance is our salvation, our deliverance from a punishment that was due.
If we think about this story, its driving force is the justice of God. It is God who must be satisfied. As a controlling metaphor it is very inadequate (it is also less than 1000 years old in the history of Christian interpretation – a “johnny-come-lately” in Biblical terms). It only addresses the notion of a blood atonement. It says nothing about the nature of the Holy Life, prayer, the sacraments, etc. It is a back-story that requires yet other stories to support the Christian life, and, as such, is inadequate.
One inevitable effect of its inadequacy is the shrinking of the gospel in order to make it fit. Historically, this story was a well-intentioned attempt to make sense of the gospel in the cultural demands of the Western Middle Ages (thank you, Anselm). Today it is used to meet the demands of contemporary culture. But its diminished version of the gospel has produced a diminished version of Christianity. That same Christianity finds its own cultural expression in the secular consumerism of the modern world. The gospel should not be diminished.
The older, more complete account of the atoning work of Christ is grounded in our union/communion with God. God is the Lord and Giver of Life, in Whom we live and move and have our being. When our sin broke communion with Him, death was unleashed and we were bound. In the Incarnation, Christ became what we are, entering into union with our humanity. He “empties Himself,” in the words of St. Paul, and enters into death and Hades. But as God, He could not be held by death. He rose again, thus trampling down death by death, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.
Our salvation, His atonement, is a work of union. He unites Himself to us that we might unite ourselves to Him. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is.
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21 NKJ)
By the same token, we are Baptized “into His death,” (Romans 6:3), and raised in His resurrection. The Holy Eucharist is also a fulfillment of our union with Him, a communion (koinonia) in His blood.
Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. “For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. (Joh 6:52-57)
This language of union supports the whole of the Christian gospel. It is the proper foundational imagery of the Christian faith. It also makes better sense of passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, as well as the Pauline Corpus.
Christ does not die “for us,” in the sense of “substitute.” For we still die. Our suffering has not been removed by His suffering, nor was our suffering ever properly understood as a punishment from God. Christ dies “for us,” in that He takes our death (all death) into Himself and makes it His death. He becomes our dying that our dying might become His life.
The same is true of the “curse.” We in no way avoid the shame of the Cross. Everything Christ says in His teaching to us points us towards union with His Cross. His Cross does not substitute for ours, but changes ours from defeat and the curse of death into victory and triumph of life.
The integrating nature of this imagery easily illustrates why it dominated early Christian thought. The Christian faith is not a divine drama within a legal court. It is life and death and life again lived out in union with Christ. Everything from the doctrine of the Church (the Body of Christ), the imagery of marriage and the Kingdom (our union with God), as well as the whole sacramental order are all spoken for within the divine/human union.
The same language also moves comfortably within the liturgical and ascetical life, as well as the language and thought of the central dogmas of the Trinity and Christology. It is certainly possible to use the language of substitution, and with sufficient nuance, even the language of punishment. But they will yield an insufficient gospel, disconnected from the full scope of the Christian life.
In my experience, bad theology eventually produces bad results. We are already reaping the fruit of the penal substitutionary model. It constitutes a spiritual famine.
~Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/03/28/a-lesser-atonement/.