Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Atonement: Why I've Stalled

I'm at work on an essay about the Atonement. I realized soon on that any account of the Atonement must take on the issue of Original Sin too, for OS must be (or have introduced) the problem that the Atonement fixes. (I choose language here that's deliberately vague. OS is the "problem". The Atonement "fixes" it. All Christians would, I think, assent to this. What I'm after is an account of the problem and the fix.)

I'm overwhelmed. I began to think back over the arc of argument that began in May of '05 (when The Philosophical Midwife began). I've expressed various views about the Atonement and Original Sin, but I now think that those views are not self-consistent.

Here's the set of views that I've expressed in the past that now seem inconsistent to me:

1. All forms of Penal Substitution are false. There was no debt owed by humanity to God that was paid by Christ.
2. Original sin is real, and it consists in a defect in human nature.
3. Sin not only corrupted human nature; it corrupted the world in which we live. The world is not as God intended. It is a world of death and destruction, of a slow slide into maximum entropy, of inescapable danger to life and spirit.
4. Insofar as anything like original sin exists, it is mere spiritual immaturity.
5. The world is a classroom, and we are the students. The lesson is love, and evil is the means of instruction.
6. Christ's primary role was that of consummate teacher, and only he could teach the lesson we must learn, the lesson of perfect love. Our redemption will come through the mastery of this lesson.
7. Christ's life and death made possible the correction of our defective nature.

I still endorse 1, for just the reasons I've given before.

I still endorse both 2 and 3, and I think that 2 explains 3. The world is fallen because humanity is fallen; and the world's redemption will come about through humanity's redemption.

I still endorse 7. Indeed 7 is the claim that Christ makes possible our redemption, that Christ is the Atoner. I would add to it that Christ's life and death made possible the redemption of the whole of nature.

I have rejected 6. The Atonement was not at bottom pedagogical in purpose (though Christ was, among much else, a teacher). Rather, I said, we are not ready to learn Christ's lesson. We are defective in nature, defective in a way that makes us unable to act upon the Law of Love, and that defect must be corrected. The primary purpose of the Atonement is thus correction of a defective human nature. Christ came so that we might be made able to love.

Now, here's where the worry begins. I suspect that my rejection of 6 stands in tension with 4 and 5. Being immature is not identical to being defective. Indeed if we were only spiritually immature, we might be just as originally designed; and if we were as originally designed, there would be no need for Christ to fix us. Christ the perfect pedagogue we might need. Christ the healer of a broken human nature we would not.

Here's another way to make the point. If I continued to embrace 4 and 5, it seems that there would have been little need for God to become man; there would be no real need for Christ. If all we need is instruction, and evil is the means to it, then it would seen that a world without Christ would have all we need. But this is absurd. Christianity without a need for Christ is not really Christianity at all. The incarnation was necessary, and any theology with even the barest hint of plausibility must embrace this.

Here's where I am. We are more than simply spiritually immature (though we are perhaps that too). Instead there's a deeper, much deeper, issue. We are broken. We need a healer. Christ is that healer. I must then reject 4 and 5.

This marks a significant shift in my world-view. Perhaps I should say that I brought different parts of my world-view into contact, saw their inconsistency, and made a decision about what should stay and what should go. In later posts, I'll attempt to bring order and articulation to my views.

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