Monday, January 09, 2006

Farming Theory of the Atonement

This is a rough work, shooting from the hip. Read it accordingly.

I've been studying the prophets recently, and in an unrelated context I had a discussion about theories of the atonement. Put them together and what do you get?

The Penal Substitution theory of the atonement starts from the premise that God is wrathful against human sin. Now, aside from whatever other problems exist with the theory, I don't think this premise is quite right. I just don't think that God wants to punish sin. I also don't think that, although he desperately wants not to, he must.

Enter the prophets.

In the prophets we do see something that on first glance looks like God's wrath against human sin. Lots of nations, particularly Israel and Judah, get smited because they didn't do the right things. But upon closer examination, the prophets are saying that all of these "destructive" acts of God are being done in order to bring about God's intended result of the bringing of the nations to Zion. Isaiah 28:24, speaking of the possibility of restoration asks, "Do those who plow for sowing plow continually?" No. Neither does anyone plow a field without intending to plant something there.

And so I give you what I hereby dub the farming theory of the atonement. God's "wrath", what Luther and Isaiah call "God's alien work" plows the field, preparing the way for Christ. Christ then is the seed, planted in the world that will yield the fruit of the kingdom. In this theory, Christ's death does not "protect us" from God's "wrath" -- rather it fulfills it and gives meaning and redemption in the midst of human suffering.

See Matthew 13:3-9 (as it relates to plowing) and John 12:24 (as it conveys the significance of Jesus' death).

What do you think?


Thomas Adams said...

A great example of your "farming theory" is found at the end of Amos. Despite the wrath and destruction of the Lord, Amos believes that he will eventually restore Israel:

"The days are coming," declares the Lord, "when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills. I will bring back by people Isreal... I will plant Isreal in their own land, never again to be uprooted."

In all the prophets, God's wrath is never his last word. He is always bringing new life out of death, and "his wrath is only the fire of his consuming love" (Luther said that, I think).

Tom in Ontario said...

I don't know if I've ever come across a satisfactory atonement theory. They always seem to have their pluses and minuses. I'll have to think on this more, although I usually try to avoid thinking about atonement and just trust that Christ's work and God's grace are sufficient.

Christopher said...

Recently read Paul by EP Sanders. Biggest quote I read, it truly blew me away, made me really glad I hadn't missed the "what atonement REALLY is day" Here is the Quote, "A doctrine of the work of Christ was never achieved, and one can only speak in theories of the atonement."

Andy said...

I tend to think that theories of the atonement are like the identity of Christ -- each age (roughly defined) must rediscover it. That is, just as each age has seen something different in who Christ is, each age will see something different in the atonement.

We really do ourselves a disservice in trying to stick to past definitions.