Monday, June 22, 2009

The Atonement: Second Thoughts

I had what I thought was my say about the Atonement. The view I proposed was a variant of the so-called "Moral Influence View". It (or a variant of it) was articulated by Abelard and Schleiemacher among others. But as I reflected what upon what I had said, I came to doubt that it was complete.

My contention was that Christ wished to display, in the most perfect of all possible ways, his perfect love for us and thereby elicit from us a more perfect love in return. But notice an assumption that I made. I assumed that we are quite able to return His love if only we become convinced that it has been shown for us. But is this true? Are we able in our present state to return it? (Indeed, in our present state, are we able so much as to admit that it has been shown for us?)

I would say no. I am fully convinced of the doctrine of original sin (if this is understood to mean that we come into the world with an inescapable propensity to sin). But sin say I is any act which tends to separate us from the love of God. Thus it would seem that we come into this world with a stubborn inability to unite ourselves to God's love, and a mere example of God's love - for us, a mere story that relates God's love to us - could not possibly overcome this. Our sinfulness is not, say, like a student's ignorance of geometry when she begins the class. There is (let us say) no essential inability in the student that would render her unable to learn, and thus her ignorance can be overcome by example, guided work and the like. There is, in other words, no impediment to instruction in place, and all should go well.

But in the case of sin, there is an impediment in place. We come into the world defective, and this defect is a bottom an inability to unite ourselves to the love of God. Thus a mere example of that love - even that example which exceeds all others in its perfection - cannot be expected to turn the tide. If Christ was a bottom only a teacher of love, then he would fail, for his students are not able to learn the lesson he would teach them.

Thus Christ cannot have been only a teacher, else his life and death would have been a waste. He cannot have come only to give an example of God's perfect love. He must have done more. He must, in particular, have made possible the cure for that inborn defect that made us (before the cure) unable to love God. Now, I do not doubt that Christ is our instructor. But he is much more too, and the more that he is must logically precede Christ the teacher. Christ must be healer before he is teacher.

So the question before us is this: How did the life and death of Christ heal humanity? How did it so effect a defective human nature that it became able to return the perfect love that was shown when Christ allowed himself to be nailed to the cross? I have no answer at present.

So, then, I come to suspect that one must hold a pluripotency view of the Atonement. It did not do one thing. It did many things. (Perhaps this is just what we should expect. In all things, God brings about a complexity of effect through a simplicity of cause.)

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