s167e01 Trinity Sunday 10/6/01 Somerton Park
"Since ... we are justified by faith we have peace with God ..." Rom 5.1
I suppose I have been as guilty as anyone else when on occasions I've got together with other clergy and talked about the career prospects of Archdeacons and Bishops, just like sometimes I think lay people and theological students are apt to talk about the career prospects of various clergy :-) But at other times, clergy are sometimes incredibly privileged to talk together about the important things of life, things like the atonement and justification, things concerning theology. And so it was that I was blessed to have such a conversation recently with a senior clergy person, and it happened that we talked about the substitution theory of the atonement. The particular context in which our discussion took place intrigued me, and I was led to look up some authorities to refresh my memory.
The substitution theory of the atonement, as John Macquarie describes in his book "Principles of Christian Theology" - is the theory "that Christ was punished by the Father for the sins of (humanity) and in the place of (humanity)" (p 284). This, he says is "sub-Christian". He admits that "some passages in St Paul might seem to support such an interpretation ... but ... (quoting another famous theologian who concludes that) "St Paul does not hold a theory of vicarious punishment."
I found similar sentiments in a recent issue of "Eureka Street" (May 2001 p 38) in an Advertisement for "The Melbourne Anglican" - a quote from the Rev'd Dr Charles Sherlock on the atonement: "The idea that Jesus somehow "bought off" an angry unforgiving Father is a gross distortion of New Testament teaching." Obviously this belief still has some currency that scholars still find it necessary to speak against it and magazines highlight words such as these.
And it got me thinking, perchance it may be that those who vehemently proclaim this doctrine are those who find it most difficult to accept the unconditional forgiveness and love of Christ. Perhaps it really doesn't matter too much which particular theory of the atonement one chooses - though I would hasten to add that I too personally would find the "substitution theory" in particular very strange - as would, I think most mainline Christians.
But perhaps subconsciously, we "defend to the death" the correctness of our own view of the atonement, because if everyone else believes it, it must be right, and so we can be even more certain of our own salvation. So in an attempt to have right on our side, there must be a wrong side to be acknowledged, to be fought against, to be corrected.
Thus my suspicion is that the difficulty with attacking this sort of thinking, is that people who hold such theories with such vehemence do so because actually despite a facade of confidence, in reality they fear for their own salvation. To criticise their doctrine is inevitably viewed as an attack on their own personal assurance of salvation. The way they overcome their fear is to proclaim the rightness of God for those who hold the correct faith, (perhaps not explicitly) to damn those who do not hold the correct faith, in the belief that the anger that they still fear God has for them will be appeased by their steadfast loyalty to God and the faith- as well as their ardent efforts to convert the world. So instead of the sufficiency of Jesus dying for all, all those who don't hold the correct faith are effectively damned for all eternity just to reassure some that they will be saved. This is not justification by faith, it is justification by works - and works by others. Their salvation is at the expense of someone else's, indeed at the expense of everyone who doesn't hold that same doctrinal view. As I say if I criticise their theology of the atonement, it is interpreted as an attack on their very salvation. Instead of being reassured they are made more fearful, fearful and defensive.
And of course this highlights the fact that the anger that most often exists is not the anger of God, but the anger of humanity, and more specifically, the anger of "religious" people. How often do we find church people critical of those who don't come to Church, indeed frequently angry that others do not? And in doing so we assume we are accurately reflecting the anger of God. The anger described in the scripture at the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus was clearly the anger of the religious authorities who were outraged that Jesus didn't confine his attentions to them, but mixed freely with others. They thought that Jesus should have supported them when they dismissed others as sinners and irrelevant, rather than eating with them and accepting their offerings. They wanted others to become like them ... And how often do we simply take for granted that the Christian message is that others should become like us ...?
Again, Macquarie (p 283) states: "Lest we be tempted to construct too elaborate a theory of atonement, or to suppose that some particularly complex historical happening was necessary for God to be able to accept (humanity), we should call to mind Christ's own parable of the (son) who finds the (prodigal) father willing to receive him, though there is no special machinery to make possible a reconciliation, and still less is there any demand that the son should give his assent to a doctrine of atonement. ... the father ... does not need to be placated ... the father was already waiting and desiring his return ... no historical event changes God's attitude, or makes him from a wrathful God into a gracious God, or allows his reconciling work to get started - such thoughts are utterly to be rejected."
Are we at peace with God? Or indeed are we angry at God that God doesn't do something about all those who don't come to Church? Surely a bit of a jolt or two wouldn't go amiss :-)
Now people are not going to be attracted to any society which is fearful and angry, indeed I wouldn't recommend anyone join us if we were so. And before we get to fussed about being "popular" - we do say that we have good news for others, do we not?
Today is the feast day of the Trinity, and the reality of this doctrine, even if we cannot understand the mechanisms, is that there is no difference in the "attitudes" of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus shows us the Father. If we are doing what Jesus wants we are doing what God wants. If we are lead by the Spirit we will do as Jesus did, (and that is to sit down and eat with others, not just "Christians", accepting their offerings, not telling them how to live their lives or what they should or should not believe.)
And we ought to be joyful and celebrate the fact of this teaching, because it means there is no doubt that we are at one with God. No longer do we have any cause for fearing for our own salvation, nor indeed fearful for anyone else's salvation. We do not have to bolster our own confidence by having everyone agreeing with us, worshipping in the same way as we do. We do not have to get anxious about others, we can put away our anger and resentments and live life to the full.
To return to my text for today: "Since ... we are justified by faith we have peace with God ..." Our faith is that we and all people have been justified, so that no longer do we or anyone else have to do anything to earn this. We can be at peach with god, and allow others to be at peace with God themselves. Our job is to get on with getting on with other people.
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