Thursday, October 22, 2015

History and Incarnation: Why Bother?

Here's a book from which I had been hoping a bit more, Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology. It didn't quite provide what I'm looking for, so I have a (seemingly) related book in the pipeline, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement.

So, what am I looking for, and is it fair to blame the author for failing to flesh out my vague preconceptions? Well, to begin at the beginning, I have no problem with most everything about Christianity except for its central claim, which is this idea of vicarious atonement via human sacrifice.

I'll admit it: I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of someone else dying for my sins. That's too much like liberalism: as Thomas Sowell says, what's my "fair share" of your possessions?

Which leads to another issue. Yes, I am a sinner. But a little perspective please. I don't walk around thinking that these sins condemn me to hell, and that only the most radical divine intervention conceivable can save me from myself.

I'm trying to think back to my first awareness of a different way of looking at the question, and I think it might have been this book, appropriately titled A Different Christianity: Early Christian Esotericism and Modern Thought. The book provided a definitive link from where I was at the time to where I am now, which is to say, from a more eastern/yoga influenced path to a Christian one. Or, it provided a version of Christianity which didn't offend my sensibilities and trigger the Jesus willies.

I can't say that I blame any intelligent person if they reject what amounts to a silly version of Christianity. For it is written (by Don Colacho): Every Christian has been directly responsible for the hardening of some unbeliever's heart. For that matter, Christianity does not solve "problems"; it merely obliges us to live them at a higher level.

On one end we have the fundamentalists. On the other, liberal Christianity -- or the progressive clergy in whose hands the gospel degenerates into a compilation of trivial ethical teachings (ibid.).

So, where is the Raccoon to lay his head? Is there a place for us at the Lord's table? I mean, without distorting Christianity beyond recognition? Or is it possible that certain traditions are responsible for the distortion?

Gonzalez doesn't suggest this, but he does maintain that what we are calling the Raccoon tradition, far from being some postmodern deviation, is actually prior to the others. He describes three main types of theology -- A, B, and C -- but type C (for Coon) was chronologically first, even if the other two became the mainstream.

To save time, I'll borrow from one of the amazon reviewers, who summarizes the situation well:

"As an evangelical, I have been rather frustrated with [the] view of salvation as simply a door into heaven. It has left me despairing of relevancy considering the fact that I'm not in heaven yet but still living in the here and now."

In other words,

"This book explains how much of traditional Christian theology (including evangelicalism but also Catholicism and liberal Protestantism) is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and theology originally based on Tertullian's legalistic theology (what the author calls type A theology: the Bible is a set of laws to be obeyed). This theology has been mixed with Augustine's Neo-Platonism (type B theology) resulting in the theology dominant in the West: theology that interprets Scripture as a set of fixed, universal truths that need to be followed. God is the Judge that will punish any deviation therefrom.

"But the author shows that there was an early theology, originally from Syria and probably closest to the tradition of the New Testament. The author calls it type C theology and considers Irenaeus its main exponent. This type of theology has disappeared due to social and political circumstances. But it's a theology that considers the Christian faith not as a set of rules to be obeyed, but God's active participation in the history of mankind. In this theology history is the stage where His purposes will unfold, where His kingdom of justice will be established. This Christianity is not just relevant for the individual Christian who wants to 'change his bad behavior' but for the whole Christian community fighting evil in all its forms and manifestations (including societies)."

I did get a whiff of social justice -- a hint of liberation theology -- in Gonzalez' analysis, and that troubled me. But other aspects are intriguing.

Remember, Jesus is here and then he's gone. He leaves no written words, so it is up to his disciples to interpret What That Was All About. They have to remember highlights from what must have been a nonstop, three-year flow of conversation. What was important? What was peripheral? How does it all relate to his death? And resurrection? And more importantly, to us?

Note in this regard that the gospels are already theology. Each gospel was produced out of this or that faith community. And remember, many gospels were excluded from the canon -- not necessarily because they were completely wrong, but because some element may have been under- or overemphasized. Indeed, there was a fight to get John -- the most explosive bomb of them all -- loaded into the canon.

Gonzalez goes into an analysis of the different ways in which the three theological types approach God, creation, original sin, salvation, and other questions. The first -- type A -- is the most legalistic and sin-conscious, whereas the second -- type B -- is at the other extreme, almost neoplatonic in its embrace of immutable abstractions to the exclusion of the material world. If type A is understood in terms of the Law, then type B is concerned with Truth, only of a highly abstract, impersonal, and timeless nature.

What about type C? First of all, it is much more grounded in the gospel of John; whether it came out of John or vice versa is unclear to me, but in any event, there is definitely a different emphasis. For it, faith doesn't so much involve immutable truths... how to put it? Orthoparadoxical, don't you know. I would say that, as Word becomes flesh, it is as if the Immutable becomes the mutable. As a consequence, there is much more focus on history, since it is now leavened with and conditioned by truth. Thus,

"all that takes place within time is guided toward God's future. At creation, God has certain goals which were to be fulfilled through the process of history" (ibid.).

God enters "into the world in the work of creation and in the leading of history." And as history is a "fundamental category," creation "is the very beginning of history, which is not then the result of sin. Even had there been no sin, there would have been history."

In other words, the implication in particular of type A theology is that history only occurs because of our primordial boo boo. Absent that, then we could have presumably remained in paradise forever. But for Iranaeus -- the progenitor of type C -- it is not so much that Adam and Eve sinned per se, but that the sin consisted of a premature grasping after something for which they were not spiritually ready.

God had a plan, but they jumped the gun: "being made 'after the image of God' means that humankind has been created with Jesus Christ as the model." In other words, it is not as if man sinned, therefore God had to come up with the idea of the Incarnation. Rather, the Incarnation was in the cards all along, not just as a remedy for our total depravity:

"God did not make human beings and then decide to take human form in the incarnation, but rather, from the very beginning, God meant to become incarnate, and therefore used the incarnate Word as a model for Adam and Eve."

Again, there is history, and something that develops within it, Man. History is a dialogue or dialectic between man and God, such that human beings have "the capacity to grow to further resemble [the] Word..."

And the Law takes on a different connotation, since it is not so much about sin and punishment as to "serve the human creature in its own process of growth and development toward closer communion with God." The law has a positive and teleological function, not just a repressive one. It doesn't mean that sin doesn't exist, but that sin blocks intimacy with God and puts up a roadblock to our own spiritual evolution.

Finally, instead of vicarious atonement (although here is still that), we have in Jesus the one who successfully overcomes the world and shows us the way. He liberates us from sin, in that he defeats "the tyrant who holds us under subjection, to allow us to become once again the creatures God intended...

Gotta wrap this up, but "the main work of Christ" is "victory against the powers that [hold] us in subjection" and "opening for us, his followers, the gap through which we too can escape from bondage."

11 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

Rather, the Incarnation was in the cards all along, not just as a remedy for our total depravity

Yes, that must be so or else He would not be Alpha and Omega. Or Aleph and Tav, as the case may be.

And the Law takes on a different connotation, since it is not so much about sin and punishment as to "serve the human creature in its own process of growth and development toward closer communion with God."

Indeed, that was the overarching truth that came through in my studies last year; I can think of no system of laws planned by man that would really be better for mankind (just considering the relations between individuals, not the laws concerning sacrificing and atonement, etc.) than what was laid out in the OT.

I have no problem with most everything about Christianity except for its central claim, which is this idea of vicarious atonement via human sacrifice.

I'll admit it: I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of someone else dying for my sins.


Not sure how much this helps, but again going back and studying the OT especially beginning with Exodus and the details of the original Passover, and going on into the sections pertaining to ritual sacrifice, etc., really sheds some mystery on the subject. I agree, it is not simply a "this guy died, so you get into heaven free" kind of deal. There is so much more there that endeepens the matter, which I don't fully understand, but the clues are all over the place.

10/22/2015 09:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Hi Bob,
I've been reading your blog for a good 5 years and very rarely comment, but this post is about something that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. The idea of substitutionary penal atonement bothers me. I have been reading a very good blog by an orthodox priest, father stephen. The orthodox, at least as explicated in this blog, fall into category "C". I don't know if you are familiar with orthodoxy at all, but you might want to go look at some of his writing. An orthodox piece that really touched me is here: https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/the-river-of-fire-kalomiros/. I have read it several times. My personal view is that the work of Christ is God participating in our death so we can participate in his life. God being reality itself does not work by proxy or simple direction in the deepest sense, but has to actually be "in" the saving of our souls. Thus the descent into death that was the crucifixion. In a very intimate and personal sense it was God participating in my death, being with me all the way down so I can be raised with him. Anyway Thank you for all your years of writing, you have been a tremendous influence on me.

10/22/2015 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Peter,

In a very intimate and personal sense it was God participating in my death, being with me all the way down so I can be raised with him.

I like that way of putting it. Thanks.

10/22/2015 09:57:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Keeping in mind that I'm probably in the ranks of those least likely to be recognized by others as being Christian, I've approached the subject with my own Pla-Doh! B view, that Christ was literally showing us the way and the truth. That the worldly biggees - power, money, thrills, prestige, comfort - were all false paths that take you no further than death. However by following His lead, that a life aligned with, embodying Truth, as best as we're able, that is not only the way to life everlasting, but the Only way.

And like the student who is honestly trying his best to solve a difficult problem in math, showing the wrong answer isn't going to get you a spanking from a good teacher, but a few pointers and a demonstration of how to solve such problems, a reminder to remember the laws, an admonition not to divide by zero, and keep on trying.

That is the way to the True answer.

On the other hand, the punk who just keeps scribbling down one random answer after another, not even trying to work the problem, showing no regard or interest in the proper path to solving it, not giving a fig for the laws, just trying to come up with the 'right' answer... he's not only on the wrong path, but is gonna get one hell of a talking to by the Teacher at the end of class.

10/22/2015 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Hey Bob, just throwing this out there for thought. I'm in my mid thirties and my dad is substitute preacher. I've had a lot of late night conversations with him about spiritual matters (we are Lutheran if that matters). One of the most interesting that I recall, and please forgive any mistakes as I am paraphrasing, but the Old Testament was for the Jews, the New Testament for the Gentiles. As the Jews were already God's chosen people, and given the High Priest went into the Temple to atone for the sins of the Jews, they didn't need saving via Jesus dying on the cross. However, the Gentiles, not being God's chosen people, had no way to the Kingdom of God except through Jesus' death on the cross. This was signified by the tearing of the Temple veil. In the Old Testament only the High Priest could pass beyond that into the Holy of Holies. The tearing signified that now all could pass through to God regardless of Jew or Gentile. I'd definitely like to hear some pros and cons, let me know what you think, and I'll try to get some more clarification from my dad.

10/22/2015 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger John Lien said...

"I have no problem with most everything about Christianity except for its central claim, which is this idea of vicarious atonement via human sacrifice. I'll admit it: I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of someone else dying for my sins."

Me too. The reality of human (and animal) sacrifice throughout history and pre-history just creeps me out. And yet, there it is, central to our Theology.

"The law has a positive and teleological function, not just a repressive one. It doesn't mean that sin doesn't exist, but that sin blocks intimacy with God and puts up a roadblock to our own spiritual evolution."

Yes, that resonates with me.

10/22/2015 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger neal said...

Well, most pathogens use innocent genetic information as cover for invasion. Gives the Host fever.
Of course, some pathogens end up serving the Host, recovering some variation of original instruction.

Some are stubborn, and die in the heat. Using what is hidden in the blood serves a certain incarnation for homo sapiens.

That is finished. No more entropy, and no more hiding, eventually.

You know, Adam walked with God, and was raised by wolves. He even got to name his godparents.
Then his damned kids started to eat the ones that put in all the effort.

Frustrating. Bambi going off the rez. And making so much very less human in the process.

10/22/2015 01:24:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

God had a plan, but they jumped the gun

As I may here, but that is what I have understood for a long time. The Tree of Life was in the midst of the Garden, and they were going to be allowed to eat from it, and probably the Tree of Knowledge at the appropriate time. In fact, we can generally define sin as doing the right thing the wrong way at the wrong time.

10/22/2015 01:46:00 PM  
Blogger Ann Kellett said...

Isn't this basic Eastern Orthodoxy?

10/22/2015 05:20:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes. The book mentioned in the post -- A Different Christianity -- was my first exposure to it.

10/22/2015 05:27:00 PM  
Blogger Cond0011 said...

" I have no problem with most everything about Christianity except for its central claim, which is this idea of vicarious atonement via human sacrifice. "

I think Human Sacrifice (dying for someone else) is the ultimate in Charity.

You see someone in need of help, whether its not-enough-change-to-buy-a-coffee to Flat-tire to saving someone from being mugged.

I don't think any right minded christian goes out there looking to die for someone (which really could easily mutate into Vain-Glory), yet on occasion it does.

As with anything to do with charity, you are 'called'.

Thus sacrifce happens.

In the meantime, enjoy the slacktime!

10/22/2015 07:30:00 PM  

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