Wednesday, April 1, 2009

“For with my own eyes I saw the real Cumaean Sibyl hang in a basket, and when the boys asked her, 'What do you want, Sibyl?' she responded, 'I want to die.'”
~Satyricon, as quoted in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

At the service today Rev. de Beer delivered his lecture on the necessity of Christ's death. It was one of the best lectures I've heard him give. I'll briefly list the three reasons he posited for Christ's death, and then I'll talk about which I think is the most correct (A brief note: the reasons he gave seem to be limited to Western theology only; the concept of theoria, which is integral to the theology of the Eastern Orthodox, was not mentioned).

Before I actually start quoting Scripture, I suppose here is as good a place as any to mention that unless I specify otherwise, all Bible verses given will be from the New American Standard Version. I mistrust the accuracy and despise the informality of the New International Version, and the King James Version, while in my opinion some of the most beautiful English ever written, unfortunately sacrifices accuracy for that beauty.

Apologies for the rant. Onto the reasons.

Legalistic Interpretation (Substitutionary atonement, specifically Penal substitution). If God is infinitely just, then all are found guilty. Christ accepts the ultimate punishment of sin—death (see Romans 6:23—“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”) for sinners, freeing us from that punishment. The crucifixion thereby reconciles the infinitely just aspect of God with His infinitely benevolent aspect.

Ransom (Classic view). We are held by our sin in the thrall of an evil force. As the worth of a soul is infinite, only the death of God Himself provides sufficient ransom for us.

Moral teacher (Moral influence). ...I am forced to admit that I either am suffering from some sort of amnesia, or my mind began to wander during this part of the lecture (this is rather more likely). Thankfully, Wikipedia exists, and I will simply quote its article on the subject [from].

“The moral influence view of the atonement is a doctrine in Christian theology that explains the effect of Jesus Christ's death as an act of exemplary obedience which affects the intentions of those who come to know about it. This understanding dates back to the early fathers, and can be found in biblical sources as well as in the teachings of St. Augustine....

The moral influence view can be contrasted with the objective views that Christ affected human nature by His death, the various penal substitution views, and the classic view that Christ's death was a ransom or redemption paid to free human kind from its bondage to sin.”

Well. Thank you, Wiki, for an admirable summary.

Of these three options, I am inclined towards penal substitution, possibly because of my interest in law. The concept of ransom seems silly to me—at best, it's toeing the line of dualism. The idea of a force other than ourselves separating us from God is, to my mind, somewhat incompatible with free will—in this situation we certainly could be restored to God through our free will. St. Augustine (I apologize, but I'm writing two papers about him, so he's on my mind fairly constantly, and yes, I realize I'm using someone who supported the moral influence view as an authority) had an excellent comment on this very issue:

“I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it so that you might 'bring healing to a soul that had sinned against you.' I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self...” (Confessions 5.10).

The moral influence view simply confuses me. Yes, the crucifixion is “an act of exemplary obedience,” but it seems remarkably perverse of God to tell His Son “You must die, so that people will obey Me.”

So those are the reasons I reject the latter two points. The reason I like the legalistic interpretation is that it allows for both God's justice and mercy to be fulfilled completely—all are judged guilty by virtue of their sin (by virtue of sin? wat), and all are forgiven through the death and resurrection of Christ.

...this is a fairly atrocious post. I rambled everywhere. I blame it on the fact that I wrote it late at night over the space of several days. A most inauspicious start, but I shall improve.

Pax vobiscum,