Obedience is better than Sacrifice

Spoke on the atonement this morning. Flew up to Nampa, Idaho to join in with the Wesleyan Theological Society. Good time. Good people.

I’ve never really been all that interested in doctrines of the atonement. I was raised in a Christian family and so never had a dramatic conversion. And the other popular interest in atonement theories almost always are about drawing divisions in Christianity, using the cross as a bludgeon to attack people who don’t measure up to a perceived, generally parochial, orthodoxy. The conference theme was on atonement so I started thinking about it last Summer, and once that started, I got very interested in where my studies were taking me. So, over the last 2.5 weeks I wrote a 25 page paper as a beginning exploration of what I think is a somewhat novel approach. Well, novel in theology, it’s entirely throughout Scripture. That’s my argument and evidence at least. Got it down to 10.5 pages to present this morning. Seemed to go well.

Anyhow, here’s my intro:

Over the last half-century, there has been a shift in how we think about God’s eternal nature and work in this world. This relational turn in theology emphasizes a social model of the Trinity and with this a sociality of God’s kingdom rather than a political or hierarchical model. This is not, to be sure, a new conception.

The terminology of perichoresis—God’s eternal dance—has, for instance, been a key model especially in the Christian East for many centuries, dating back to the early church. In what follows, I will propose a model of the atonement that derives from this emphasis on God’s relationality. This is a preliminary exploration for what is a much larger project certainly in need of further refining and development. For the moment, I will propose themes and lay the groundwork for this approach that can be honed in future works.

A theology of the atonement involves two extremely important underlying questions. The first asks what is sin? Is it a violation of God’s honor as Lord? Is it corruption that leads to death? The tendency to establish a scapegoat? The devil’s capture of us in enslavement?

These questions point to the second key question. What is God’s primary pattern of interaction with this world? In the late twentieth century there was a shift of understanding of the human condition away from a strict legal construction and towards understanding sin as more of a disoriented identity that results in relational violations.

Such a view on the human situation is key in the theology of many contemporary theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. They both assert that attempts to establish our identity in a person, cause, activity, or goal other than God results in dis-integration—with God and with others—as nothing other than God can sustain identities into eternity. Such dis-integration requires re-integration.

However, models of the atonement have not derived, for the most part, from the starting point that Pannenberg and Moltmann, and others, suggest. This gap highlights the need for a new model, one that better incorporates contemporary understanding of the Trinity and anthropology.

This may also become a model that can include other models within its scope as it suggests the underlying priority, expressed through different themes, of God’s work throughout the Biblical narrative.

My initial conception is this: The relational trust between God and humanity that allowed for relational intimacy was broken through sin. God’s initiating movements then created contexts of obedience or disobedience as particular people chose where they would put their trust.

The expressions of obedience were insufficient both as a sustaining and as a fulfilling expression. The judgment of God expresses a relational displeasure, a response to betrayal and falsehood in attempts to instantiate ourselves through alternative means.

The cross becomes the ultimate expression of obedience and thus trust, denying false forms of identity and embracing the fullness of God’s promise. This act of obedience becomes the avenue of trust for humanity and the avenue of trust for God, who trusts those who trust the Son.

Such trust is first an ontological restoration as it orients a person within God’s field of force, his perichoretic substantiation that we call justification. This then re-initiates those who trust in the cross into a new transformative path of obedience, a new birth that re-constitutes the human identity and leads it to a path of identity reformation, which we call sanctification.

I’m not posting the whole thing because I’m considering what I want to do with it. It’s at least a book project, maybe my summer project now, but I may work on submitting the initial version as an article.

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