Sunday, September 23, 2007

Adam soteriology: a refinement

In a comment on the previous post, Jamie asked why Christ's death is important to Adam soteriology, the atonement theory I had proposed.

My immediate answer was (in part):
My response would be to bring Christ's death into relation with his act of obedience. Jesus had to obey to the furthest depths of his being. Where Adam sought to exalt himself, Christ had to abase himself to the ultimate extent. A willingness not merely to die, but to suffer torture and public humiliation — and even a season of alienation from God — to obey such a destiny is surely the ultimate act of obedience.
That was my immediate answer, but I confess to some ongoing ambivalence about it.

The challenge with any atonement theory, it seems to me, is to hold two principles in uneasy tension. On the one hand, we must accord real, salvific significance to Christ's death (this is what Jamie challenged me to do), and not reduce it to a mere accident of history. On the other hand, we don't want to depict God as some sort of vengeful monster who demands nothing less than brutal violence, bloodshed, and death as a satisfaction for sin.

In order to exonerate God of this charge of savage cruelty (sadism), we might blame the brutality of Christ's death on the human actors who executed him:  the Roman procurator, the Jewish high priest, or whomever we deem culpable. The problem is, this seems to reduce Jesus' death to a historical accident.

Jesus did not regard martyrdom that way. He regarded it as his destiny, his calling:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."

And he said to them, "Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.'" (Luke 13:31-33)1
Some scholars are sceptical about the three predictions of crucifixion attributed to Jesus (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). The more detailed the predictions become — note the specifics of the third prediction — the more likely it is that they were composed after the event.

Other scholars argue that Jesus easily could have foreseen a death of the sort described in Luke 13. The powers-that-be were hostile to Jesus' ministry, and prophets had been martyred in the past in a vain attempt to silence them. Thus it is not difficult to imagine that Jesus predicted his martyrdom in general terms, which were perhaps fleshed out in greater detail post eventu.

Jesus was fully aware that death awaited him in Jerusalem, but he made no attempt to evade it. He saw martyrdom as a divinely appointed destiny:  a divine "must" (Gk. dei)2 compelled him onward toward it:
And he [prayed], "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." (Mark 14:36)
Based on the above text, we could summarize the course of events as follows:  (1) God willed Jesus' death; (2) therefore Jesus voluntarily submitted to betrayal and execution. I propose, instead, a slightly more complex chain of cause-and-effect:
  1. God willed Jesus' obedience (in contradistinction to Adam's disobedience);
  2. Precisely because of his uncompromising obedience to God's will, Jesus made powerful enemies, who resolved that he must be silenced;
  3. Therefore it was inevitable that continued obedience would culminate in Jesus' martydom.
On this analysis, God didn't directly will Jesus' death, but merely Jesus' obedience.

The decision of the powers-that-be to murder Jesus was not a direct reflection of God's will; it merely expressed the hatred human beings harbour toward God, who was embodied perfectly in Christ. The crucifixion is a kind of train wreck, where the human "way" intersects and collides with the divine "way", giving rise to murderous passions on the part of the human actors.

When Paul depicts Jesus as an antitype of Adam in Romans 5, the typology turns on the contrast between Adam's disobedience and Jesus' obedience. It is the obedience that is salvific. And yet, because the crucifixion was an inevitable consequence of Christ's perfect obedience, Paul can assert:
… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Php. 2:8)
My intent, obviously, is to step back from the ham-fisted formula, God tortured Jesus in order to effect our salvation.

Insofar as we speak of God's destructive wrath poured out against sin, I have no objection to the penal substitution atonement theory. 2Co. 5:21 is pertinent here:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
If Christ in some sense became sin, God's wrath is poured out on sin. But as soon as we begin to envision God's destructive wrath poured out upon Jesus, I suspect our analysis has gone off track. (Though admittedly, it is a fine distinction I'm making here!)

In any event, I propose that Adam soteriology is free of this potential defect. The right way to look at it is, God directly willed Christ's obedience, and it is this obedience which is salvific. The crucifixion was merely a by-product of the obedience, though it was inevitable because of the violent hatred fallen human beings harbour toward God.

The only way for Jesus to evade martyrdom was to cease to obey God. That option, obviously, wasn't open to him.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2Mark 8:31 and Luke 13:33, both cited above; Luke 17:25, 22:37, 24:7.


Anonymous said...

Thanx for your posts on Adam soteriology. They have been brilliant, and I agree with your interpretation. It seems to be roughly in line with Denny Weaver (Non-Violent Atonement) and others.

-Some questions and comments:
1) When the NT speaks about our being saved/forgiven by his blood, should we then understand this as "we have been saved by Jesus obedience, an obedience that had its crescendo on the cross"?
2) I think your soteriology needs the Spirit. Jesus has been raised, exalted, and his presence (spirit) has been given to his followers so that they too, through him, can obey God.
3) What about the trinity, the divinity of Christ, etc. Your teaching could be interpreted as/lead to heresy on this matters. (I wouldn´t mind, but I still wonder...)
/Jonas Lundström

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks for the kind words. I don't know about "brilliant", but I have certainly wrestled with these issues over a long period of time.

saved/forgiven by his blood

I don't propose that Adam soteriology is the only explanation of atonement taught in the New Testament. I think the references to Jesus' blood (= Jesus' death) should probably be understood along the lines of penal substitution. But I would like to establish (1) that penal substitution is an analogy, not a scientific description of the mechanism of atonement; and (2) that penal substitution is not the only analogy used in the New Testament.

Those two points free us from a mechanical interpretation of penal substitution and give us some flexibility in how we articulate it. Christians need to be extremely careful how they explain the salvific power of Jesus' blood, or they will inadvertently depict God as a cosmic sadist.

The statement you propose, "We have been saved by Jesus' obedience" strikes me as a legitimate assertion within the Adam soteriology model.
Thank you for suggesting it. I'm putting the idea out there in full awareness that it needs to be developed further, and I appreciate your input.

I think your soteriology needs the Spirit. Jesus has been raised, exalted, and his presence (spirit) has been given to his followers so that they too, through him, can obey God.

You're quite right, I haven't discussed the Spirit's role in our salvation at all. A key verse would be 2Co. 3:18, "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."

In that text, Paul seems almost to identify the risen Jesus with the Spirit. But of course Christians will want to give a distinct role to each person of the Trinity. Your proposal, that the Spirit enables us to obey God as Jesus obeyed God, is a good one.

What about the trinity, the divinity of Christ, etc. Your teaching could be interpreted as/lead to heresy on this matters.

A very perceptive question. I'm not sure what I said that caused you to wonder about this!

You're right, I am less than 100% orthodox in my understanding of Christ. In particular, I deny the dogma of Christ's preexistence. I begin from Jesus' claims about himself in the synoptic Gospels; it doesn't seem to me that the historical Jesus made any claim to preexistence.

Jesus repeatedly and emphatically makes such claims in John's gospel, of course, but I see that as a post-resurrection doctrine that John placed on Jesus' lips retrospectively.

I have no difficulty affirming much of the biblical language about Jesus. I believe that Jesus received an extraordinary measure of the Holy Spirit at his baptism ("without measure", as John puts it) which enabled him to live that life of perfect obedience we have been discussing. Thus he is aptly described as "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature" (He. 1:3). Again, it is true that Jesus has made the Father known to us (John 1:18).

I also affirm that after the resurrection, Jesus began to share in some of the functions of divinity. Thus I hold to an adoptionist christology. Jesus was born an ordinary human being; he was elevated toward divinity at his baptism, via the extraordinary measure of the Holy Spirit he received; and then further elevated toward divinity at his resurrection, when indeed he began to participate in some of the divine functions.

The risen Jesus is seated at the right hand of God and he is our Lord. Nonetheless, he remains ultimately subordinate to the Father, as is clearly indicated by 1Co. 15:26-28.

There; I've just outed myself as a heretic. I hasten to add that I speak for no denomination. I'm not a pastor, just a lay person who is highly motivated to study theology. So if anyone is scandalized, they may feel free to ignore me as someone outside of any institutional expression of Christianity.

Anonymous said...

Oops. Didn´t mean to help you come out with those heresy-tendencies... You are unusually straightforward in this, maybe because you have no churchly position of power to defend (?). (Your answer makes me wonder if you belong to a church and if yes, what kind of...)

Some comments/questions:
-The conception of Jesus? The normal or the miracle-one?
-Wouldn´t it be possible to have roughly the same christology, but at the same time be more affirmative of "John´s" gospel (and Kol 1, Eph 1, Hebr 1)? I tend to think that God´s Word or Wisdom has been materialized in Jesus, but I wouldn´t affirm (or deny) if that Word prior to the conception was a "person" or not. (It is the wrong question, belonging to a philosophical system that is neither ours, neither the Bible´s). "Jesus", in my view, is the name Mary gave to the baby (so he didn´t exist before). When "Jesus" speaks in John´s gospel, the text obviously doesn´t mean that the rabbi/carpenter was alive and kicking before the incarnation, but it could be interpreted as a way to say that Jesus has always been the center of God´s plan (in line with Ephesians)?
-Have you read James McClendon?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I haven't read James McClendon; in fact, this is the first time I've encountered his name. But I would certainly look him up if he sheds light on this topic.

I think the idea of Christ as incarnate (impersonal) Wisdom has merit. Would that help to salvage some of the content of the texts you mention: Col. 1, Eph. 1, and Heb. 1?

It is the idea of a personal preexistence that I balk at, because Jesus doesn't speak in those terms in the synoptics. I don't understand why the resurrection caused the apostles to leap to the idea of preexistence, which appears to be what happened.

I don't believe in the virgin birth, largely because of its weak attestation in the New Testament. (I certainly concede that God could conceive a baby in the womb of a virgin if he wanted to.). Not only is it not mentioned in Mark or Paul — or John, for that matter — but Matthew and Luke don't present us with a shared tradition either. (Their accounts have virtually no overlap except on the two naked facts, (1) virgin birth (2) in Bethlehem.

It's clear that the gospel tradition actually begins with the appearance of John the Baptist. Meanwhile, the appeal to a miraculous birth as a way to establish that a certain person has a special purpose in (salvation) history is so commonplace as to be stereotypical: in fact, it appears recurrently in the OT. So there's not much historical evidence for the tradition, but it is easily conceived of as a mythological / theological creation.

I would really like to affirm the tradition, but I'm persuaded that the evidence is decisively against it.

As for the typical evangelical position, that Jesus is God's equal — I think that Jesus would not only repudiate the idea, I think he would regard it as heresy and beg us not to speak that way of him. Paul is generally cited in support of the doctrine, but in my reading of Paul he is careful never to present Jesus as God's equal, and he too would repudiate the idea as it came to be formulated in the fourth century.

I realize this puts me in an awkward position vis-à-vis the Church. That's one reason why I am now turning my attention to OT theology, because I understand that the Church will never accept my christological position. I'm being very direct about it because these are, in fact, my convictions; but I deeply regret that the Church has pretty much disowned me.

Cliff Martin said...

I, for one, do not disown you, Stephen! You are obviously a committed follower of Christ, and you take Truth seriously. I love the way you think. I noted once, a while back, that you declared that you were not an evangelical. Since then, I have fine-tooth-combed your theological statements, and found you to be quite sound (I hate descriptives like that ... sorry).

While my Christology is more "traditional" (another hated descriptive!) than yours, I also place myself in the potential-heretic column when I deny belief in the standard evangelical construction of the Trinity. So there. I'm out of the closet, too.

But I am not about to stop pursuing the truth about God and Jesus and salvation together with you. Keep up the work you do so well: stimulating us to think through what we believe and why.

Anonymous said...

Stephen. I think "wisdom" could solve Hebrews (wisdom as God´s offspring). Note also Hebr 7:10 on "pre-existence". (I think it Dunn interprets it this way, if I remember rightly, you seem to be inspired by him). I would also read John 1 in the same way, even though Dunn finds this implausible.

As to Kol 1, I think one should read it in the light of the sister-letter Eph, which to me states clearly that the pre-existence of the Messiah is a pre-existence within Gods plan or vision. (Not as a distinct person). Jesus what not something God invented along the way as things went wrong, it has always been God´s plan to sum everything up in Jesus, the Messiah. God even created the universe through and towards this Vision.

-I think that it can be in line with the NT to speak of Jesus as "G/god" in one or two ways. Jesus is our god (as in god-king in line with some texts in the OT and the praxis of the Roman empire), and Jesus is God in such a way that one can "point to" Jesus and say "there is God". (John 14:1-, Hebr 1:1-2, Kol 1, 2 Kor 3) Jesus is the image of God. But still, Jesus and God is not the same in my view, Jesus is a human being, distinct from God, and subordinated. So I would agree with you.

-McClendon is (was) a narrative, anabaptist-inspired systematic theologian. He has written three books in systematic theology (Ethics, Doctrine, + a third). Read Doctrine on this, I think you would like it, although he tends to be more affirmative to the creeds than you.

-I think I can see your point with the virgin birth. For me, though, I think it is good to try to be as biblical as possible, even do I think there are opposite views in the Bible. But to throw things out would be too drastic for me, I want to take a more humble approach to the apostles and the church that was closer than me to Jesus.

-And, there is not such thing as "the Church". As I said in a previous debate. There are only churches. Your views would be welcome in some of them.

/Jonas Lundström

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Cliff:
Thanks for the affirmation. I'm not surprised to receive it from you, because I think we're both stubbornly independent in our thinking.

For myself, I would say that the Church finds me unassimilable. I'm like something you eat that can't be digested, so it passes right through you. (Now there's a metaphor that doesn't bear thinking about too closely!)

I think your ideas about entropy are similarly non-conformist, which is not to say that they don't have merit. That's why I'm not surprised that you're able to accept where I'm coming from.

btw, I added you to my blogroll (before you left the comment yesterday). My policy is to blogroll people who regularly leave comments, and you are in that category.

• Jonas:
Your theology is close to mine. You're quite right, Dunn has influenced me more than anyone else as I've attempted to sort out the New Testament questions. That's why I'm open to the idea of Christ as the incarnation of Wisdom. I think it makes relatively good sense of Paul's somewhat ambiguous position on the relationship of Jesus to God.

But I agree with Dunn that John takes a crucial step beyond Paul's christology, and makes claims that cannot be grounded in history. So do the synoptic Gospels, of course, but I think the synoptics are careful to retain a historical anchor that John ultimately casts off. John is a brilliant theologian, and from time to time I find myself reaching to him for concepts that no other NT author says quite so well. But he makes certain christological claims — personal preexistence and perhaps equality with God — that I feel compelled to distance myself from. I'm also offended by his characterization of "the Jews" as children of the devil: that's the sort of thing that the Church must repudiate, given our dirty hands with respect to antisemitism.

With respect to the virgin birth (or conception), I happily affirm its theological point: Jesus is God's son.

With respect to the Church / churches — I haven't finally shut the door to that. I hope to work my way back into a ministry at some point in the future, perhaps as I get closer to retirement (i.e., in the next fifteen or twenty years). I think the Church in the West will have to rely increasingly on "tentmaker" pastors. I will have something to lend to that scenario, but the Church and I are not quite ready for each other yet.

Jamie said...

Stephen: I've been out of the blogosphere for the last week and just now saw this post.

I was with you up until this point:

If Christ in some sense became sin, God's wrath is poured out on sin. But as soon as we begin to envision God's destructive wrath poured out upon Jesus, I suspect our analysis has gone off track. (Though admittedly, it is a fine distinction I'm making here!)

Perhaps you can clarify what you mean here, because I'm thoroughly confused as to why it's ok for God to pour out his wrath on sin (i.e. Jesus) when it's not ok for him to pour it out on Jesus.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Jamie:

If that's your only quibble with the post, it really doesn't touch on my main point. It was just a seed thought I tossed out; and it concerns penal substitution theory, not my Adam soteriology proposal.

Obviously I'm troubled by penal substitution, with its notion of God pouring out his wrath on an innocent victim, even though I believe it is a biblical teaching. It occurs to me that Paul's language — "God made Jesus to be sin for our sake" — might point us in the direction of a (partial) solution. Obviously there's no reason to dispute that God is wrathful toward sin, and no one can find fault with God for possessing that attribute.

But 2Co. 5:21 is a problem text, and I don't think the meaning of it is self-evident. I believe the NIV paraphrases, saying that God made Jesus a sin offering for our sakes.

I presume that God didn't literally make Jesus into sin. Therefore the statement must be understood metaphorically. So here we have a metaphor within the broader metaphor, penal substitution.

What precisely does it mean? Feel free to share your own interpretation with us!

In any event, it was a tangent from the discussion of Adam soteriology, for which the idea, God made Jesus to be sin, is irrelevant. I regret that I seem to have annoyed you by tossing that seed thought out there.

Jamie said...

In any event, it was a tangent from the discussion of Adam soteriology, for which the idea, God made Jesus to be sin, is irrelevant. I regret that I seem to have annoyed you by tossing that seed thought out there.

Oh, no, you didn't annoy me. Didn't mean to give that impression. I didn't have any problem with what you said about Adam soteriology; my only quibble was with the tangent (and I realize it was a tangent) about penal substitution.

I don't think I could adopt Adam soteriology as my main soteriological model, just because it's still a little difficult for me to see exactly how Jesus' life and death could reverse the consequences of sin. In that sense, I don't find Adam soteriology quite comprehensive (?) enough. (I don't think comprehensive is the right word there...) Still, I think the parallels you draw out are interesting and valuable, and they add needed depth to other models.