Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why I'm Not a Fundamentalist -- Part 3, Atonement

From Part 1
For some reason last night I found myself thinking about the 5 fundamentals of Christian Fundamentalism. And I have never been accused of being a fundamentalist. But I thought more of us need to respond to fundamentalism beyond a rejection of it. So over the next little while (maybe by Easter) I intend a 5 part series on why I am not a fundamentalist.

One of the tenets of fundamentalism is an acceptance of Substitutionary Atonement (also referred to as Blood Atonement in some places).

Substitutionary ATonement is the belief that Christ's redeeming work is done by paying the price (in a "wages of sin is death" type of way) for human sin. THink sacrificial lamb, washed in the blood of the lamb type language. The theory is certainly present in Scripture but likely reached the peak of its develpoment when Anselm of Canterbury wrote the treatise Cur Deus Homo (Why God Man).

Anselm postulated that only a [hu]man could pay the price for [hu]man sin/wrongdoing. However he also held to the belief that the price for a wrong increased by the worth of the person being wronged*. Therefore only God could pay the price owed to God. Thus to bear the weight of human sin and still pay the price owed to GOd one had to be both human and DIvine. (Yes this is a gross simplification of the theory but I don't want to write and essay)

REally I have little problem with naming this as an atonement theory. IT is SCriptural and for those who find that guilt over those things they have done wrong is the main thing keeping them separate from GOd it can be comforting to think that the price of that wrongdoing has been paid.

BUt there are problems with this understanding. It has been called "divine child abuse" since it ends up claiming that GOd sent "His only begotten Son" just to have him killed. It seems to limit GOd's understanding of forgiveness to human understandings of revenge and payback. ANd it assumes that we all need the same path to at-one-ment.

Fundamentalism claims that Substitutionary Atonement is the only atonement theory that fits into Christianity. ANd to be fair it is the predominant atonement theory in much of Western Christianity, Protestant and Catholic, over the last several centuries. This is where the real problem comes in.

Historically there are multiple theories of atonement. THe three classics are Ransom/Christus Victor, Satisfaction, and Moral Influence. As it happens I am doing some pre-publication reading of a book on atonement theory for a former professor. The first chapter I read was on Jesus as REvealer, now I am reading a chapter on Jesus os Moral Influence. WE need a multiplicity of atonement theories because different people find that different things are the key that separates them from God. Substitutionary atonement has little resonance for my faith experience. But I would never claim that the theory which fits my experience the most (the Jesus as REvealer chapter resonated really strongly) has to fit everyone.

The problem with fundamentalism of any stripe is in the claim to one and only one truth/path/reality. That just isn't an accurate picture of how the world, or GOd, operates.

*I am not sure if Anselm had this in mind, but this part of his understanding reminds me of the concept of the weregild, a term out of ancient Anglo-SAxon law.


  1. Hi Gord--just to let you know that you are not speaking into an empty room. I find these reflections on Fundamentalism very useful and informative.

    Oh, and Substitutionary Atonement nearly drove me out of Christianity...

  2. I'll second Peter's comment. I'm reading and engaged, just not enough brain matter functioning to comment right now...