Saturday, October 27, 2007

Paul on the Cross

The thing that began my long-standing love affair with theology was trying to find an answer to the question of why Jesus had to die. Growing up in a Lutheran church, I don't recall ever hearing any answer to this question. Then one evening I asked my father-in-law, who I knew to spend an inordinant amount of time in Bible study. He said he didn't know. It's just so foundational that a lot of people don't even question it. Poking around to see who did have an answer to this question, I very quickly met St. Anselm, and yes I even read Cur Deus Homo.

Now perhaps I was very sheltered before this. I may be the only person in the last 500 years to have read Cur Deus Homo before becoming familiar with the satisfaction theory of the atonement in its modern form. It was extremely fascinating to me to see the way Anselm reasoned. I was particularly taken with his claim that humans are being redeemed to make up the number of fallen angels so that there will be a perfect number of worshippers in heaven. I didn't think he was right, of course, but I was charmed. I've been in love with theology ever since.

While I've found in the years since then that nothing, absolutely nothing, can be as pointless and counter-productive as debating theories of the atonement, I've never quite been able to let this question go.

With that background, when I saw David Brondos' Paul on the Cross announced on the Fortress Press web site, I bought it immediately. Unfortunately I have a bad habit of buying books faster than I can read them, so this one has been sitting on the bookshelf for nearly a year. Finally last week I started it.

I should've read it sooner.

I'm not sure yet if I buy his argument, but Brondos' suggestion is nothing less than revolutionary. He builds on the New Perspective on Paul, but goes beyond it, I think, and critiques the key scholars involved in the New Perspective.

Brondos begins his book by making a sweeping survey of atonement theories from Irenaeus to Barth and Bultmann, rejecting all of them. Then he presents a reconstruction of the first century Jewish story of redemption and a reconstructed early Christian story (i.e. pre-Paul as echoed in the gospels). In the second half of the book he argues that Paul's story of redemption is essentially the same as the early Christian story and that expressed in the gospels.

The upshot of all this is that, according to Brondos, the search for a "theory of the atonement" as we typically think of it is misguided because they all think of salvation as something the follows "mechanically" from Jesus' death and try to explain how the atonement "works." Against this Brondos claims that Paul, in agreement with other earlier Christians, is proclaiming a gospel where Jesus as God's Messiah is bringing about redemption of Israel through his obedience to the will of God primarily in his life and teaching, with his death being a consequence of this obedience and the resurrection being God's seal of approval. I'm only halfway through my first reading, so I might be misrepresenting a lot of this, but I think that's the gist of it.

I don't know what the academic community thinks of Brondos' ideas. The only review I've been able to find was by D.A. Carson who, predictably, thinks he's wrong. It seems to me that Paul doesn't talk enough about Jesus' teaching for this idea to hold (at least as I've understood it), but it does have the very great merit of bringing Paul and the gospels into much better harmony than the standard reading of Paul would have them. I think I'm going to have to try re-reading the New Testament from this perspective.

7 comments:

Pastor David said...

Andy,
Sounds like a great book - I'll have to order it an put it in my queue of things to read.

It sounds similar to the thesis of Gustav Aulen's Christus Victor, which you must read if you have not come across it yet in your quest for understanding. It certainly has its weaknesses, but the strongest point is Aulen's argument that atonement is not a theory, it is a drama - the drama of redemption.

One of the best re-statement's of Aulen's thesis I have found is in Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, vol 1. He spends all of about two pages on atonement, saying simply that all of our theories and explanations are inadequate, and the only way to truly understand the atonement is to participate in the drama of redemption as it is enacted in historic liturgy of the Great Three Days (Maudy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil).

Andy said...

I have read Christus Victor and I agree that it's excellent.

Christus Victor is actually among the theories that Brondos specifically rejects. Curiously, he agrees with Aulen in assigning this theory to the likes of Irenaeus and Athanasius, though he disagrees with the claim that Paul held this theory.

His complaint is that its sets up a situation where something is blocking salvation and salvation automatically follows from the atonement. He insists that in Jewish thought salvation is entirely available and depends only on the will of God.

Lee said...

I am definitely sympathetic to re-thinking traditional notions of atonement that don't rely on a mechanical transactional model (I've been dipping into James Alison's work lately), but I'm skeptical of any account of Paul's thought that doesn't make the cross absolutely central. I just don't see how you make that work exegetically.

Andy said...

I hear you, Lee, and I think that's what's causing my hesitation accepting Brondos' view too.

I don't think he's exactly saying that the cross isn't central for Paul -- just that when Paul talks about the cross he intends more than just the death of Jesus. Reading his examination of the key passages it makes sense, but I'm withholding judgment until I can work through Paul's letters for myself with Brondos' perspective in mind.

Diane said...

Actually, I like Gerhard Forde's locus on the atonement, "atonement as Actual Event". (not theory) it's in the right direction.

Andy said...

I used to really like Forde. His approach is intertesting, though in the end I'm not sure he ends up saying much. What he's against is good. What he's for is even good. But I think his kind of thinking probably accounts for why I never heard anyone try to explain why Jesus died. It's a very Lutheran answer.

JHS. said...

I just found your blog . . .

Very nice site. I am puzzled by some of your comments, however.

Frankly, having grown up in the Lutheran Church and been an (overly)active member my whole life (until 10 months ago), I have ALWAYS understood the crucifixion to be the ultimate act of obedience. Lutheran pastors have always explained it to me that way. It was a surrendering of the human will to that of the Triune God. That is the whole basis for the time spent in prayer in the Garden where Jesus in very human form, asks that he not have to follow through, wrestles with the devil, and eventually submits to his Father's will.

I guess I'm just a very simple person because I don't see anything revolutionary about this interpretation, but I haven't read the book.