Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What About the "Non Violent Atonement"?

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr)

One of the truly great summaries of liberal Protestantism in the last century, Niebuhr’s quote has found new currency in the present church environment. A group called Preaching Peace ( has taken on the task of holistically reconceptualizing Christian theology in light of the insights of Rene Girard, the French anthropological philosopher, and the application of his “mimetic theory” or the observation that human desire and behavior involves deep levels of imitation. Essentially, we borrow our desires from others in an endless drama of mythic themes and human imitation.

Girard’s 1972 book, Violence and the Sacred developed Girard’s “second great insight: “the victimary process, which is at the origin of archaic religion.” In Girard’s thinking, the Gospels offer a typical mythical account with “a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd.” However, unlike the normal myth, this one proclaims the innocence of the victim.

In Preaching Peace’s perspective, the Gospels appear to present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice — symbolic in this case — in the Eucharist. Yet the parallel is perfect except for one detail: the truth of the innocence of the victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer.

For the Preaching Peace group, peace is a hermeneutic. When Jesus said, “Peace I give to you,” they see this as exposing “all of our theologies and faiths and religions where we fail to see that Peace is . . . an interpretive choice.”

Applied to the cross of Christ, the Preaching Peace folks want to strip away all of the violence-saturated language of Christian theology (getting rid of the shadow of Augustine and Eusebius) and apply the insights of Girard and the “hermeneutic of peace” to understanding it.

Take Romans 3:25, for instance. Paul says God presented Jesus to be the “propitiation for our sins.” Unlike other words for forgiveness which refer to wiping clean the slate or remitting sin, propitiation (hilastarion) has been understood as assuaging the righteous wrath of a holy God against sin. Jesus’ death satisfied God’s righteous anger or made him “propitious.”

The Preaching Peace view asks the questions: “Does Jesus reveal God's love for us, or placate God's wrath towards us? And doesn't this way of thinking presuppose that you can attain a good, loving result through violence? Does the end justify the violent means? Isn't this the sort of thinking that has fueled the endless cycle of violence that's characterized human history?”

In the last century, liberal Protestantism got around the cross by seeing the ministry of Christ as exemplary of divine love. Now, we have a sophisticated anthropological analysis of human history being used to empty the cross of any meaning other than a pyrrhic victory over violence through innocent suffering. And, major denominational groups are promoting the "non-violent atonement" seminars. I know of at least one denomination that has been sending e-mails to their pastors recommending the resources. And, it has been enthusiastically endorsed by Brian McLaren and other members of the emerging church.

Before I overturn Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Owen, Edwards, and a host of Christian heroes, I will need more than Girard’s musings about mimetics. It's almost enough to make one want to echo the Apostle Paul: "For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" 1 Corinthians 2:2 (HCSB).


Dave Miller said...

Dennis, one might ask how one can indeed become like the other, and yet not be the other.

Perhaps the Mclaren set is not really looking to empty the cross, but to make it a little more accessible to people who see it as surrounded by insurmountable walls.

To me the challenge is how to do that and remain true to the Gospel, it's message, and it's power.

Dennis E. McFadden said...

Of course McLaren would never own up to emptying the cross of its meaning. Indeed, he wants to transform it into something accessible to modern sensibilities so that it can have relevance today for as many people as possible. The Preaching Peace folks, if I read them correctly, believe that the Christian story destroys the violence of our prevailing human mythos by presenting an innocent rather than a guilty party as the victim. Preaching Peace allows us to fill out that meaning rather than perpetuating the violence associated with religion for so many eons.

Can the Bible be reinterpreted in a radically different manner than how it has been understood for two millennia? Certainly! Marxists have done it with Liberation theology; radical human autonomy voices have done it with Open Theism; Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses have applied a different hermeneutic and obtrained a decidedly new version of it.

However, I am not willing to overturn Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, or Barth in order to reduce the scandal of the cross or even the "ech" factor that accompanies it for some cultured despisers of Chrisitanity today.

Dave, it reminds me of the fellow in seminary who was miserable until he learned that he did not have to believe the Bible or Christian doctrine in order to become a minister. Of course Preaching Peace lowers the entry barriers to Christianity. But, IMO, Paul intended some of them to remain. That is why he used hilaskomai word group rather than simply aphesis (forgiveness) or eleos (mercy).

Hilaskomai strips us of our pride, deprives us forever of any sense that we bring anything of value to the table. Hilaskomai speaks of the wrath of God, the penalty of sin, the infinite value of the blood of the Son of God. Hilaskomai, rather than merely expiating or sweeping our sin away, reminds us that it must be propitiated. Like the provision of the animal skin in the garden, it proclaims that without the shedding of blood their is no remission of sin.

Politically incorrect? Duh! Impossible to avoid without emptying the atonement of meaning? I think so.

Bob Wilson said...

Dennis, it appears to me that Jesus cares deeply about our sin and violence, and I do not see why we should see calling his costly innocent suffering a "Pyrrhic victory" as diminishing.

You appear to repeat the view that hilastarion means we must emphasize "propitiation" and is "impossible to avoid" (Seyoon Kim supports this in Fuller's Winter "Theology, News, & Notes"). My knowledge is quite limited, but I know you're aware that some Greek N.T. authorities dispute this penal substitution interpretation. Thus, to repeat Roy's and my inquiry on the previous Bible/experience issue, my bias is that evangelicals should focus less on questioning others' motives or agenda, and more on engaging the challenging Biblical exegetical questions.

Dennis E. McFadden said...

"some Greek N.T. authorities dispute this penal substitution interpretation"

Some "Greek N.T. authorities," like Bart Ehrman, even disbelieve in the existence of God. I miss your point. Naturally, experts disagree. And, they can advocate their point of view in their articles, books, and classroom work. All I've got is a pathetic little blog. So all you get here is my view.

Bob Wilson said...

My attempts at dialogue ARE obscure!!

But, if you can forgive one more shot, it does seem it's less atheists than those who sign our Biblical infallibility oaths who pose the real "exegetical" challenges. E.g in IVP's Dictionary of Paul & His Letters, J. M. Gundry concludes that hilasterion (Rom. 3:25) is not "propitiation" (pp. 279-284). Likewise Dr. Stephen Travis' articles on Judgement and God's Wrath. Of course NT prof Joel Green's IVP book on the cross says it doesn't assuage God's anger, but is more like the victory you call Pyrrhic. Many exegetes observe that we are never told as we might expect that God is the object of the atonement's reconciliation, or that it changes His disposition, or enables His forgiving love (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19; Rom. 5:8-10).

I realize that 'experts' say different things and that your heroes disagree with mine. So while I enjoy reading your view, I'm simply left unclear upon what basis one should think it is "impossible to avoid."

Dennis E. McFadden said...


You keep hanging me with Seyoon Kim's "impossible to avoid." Re-read my original post. I never used those words nor referenced him at all. Frankly, these days FTS folks are never employed as authorities in anything I do.

As for Joel Green and Bob Gundry's daughter Mrs. Miroslav Volf . . . I realize the Green has been harping on this for years. Judy's position is also well known. Indeed, John Piper's "Counted Righteous in Christ" was written to contradict her dad's views with regard to justification and imputation. And, as far as "objective" exegesis, it is no surprise that Judy's husband, Miraslav, is the honcho at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture(remember the recent peace initiatve to the Muslim community with the letter responding to a "Common Word Between Us and You"?). I am not surprised that what he argues for theologically she builds a foundation for exegetically.

Does that make them wrong? Absolutely not. However, in my old age I have moved from evidential and rational apologetics to presuppositionalism precisely because of this tendency we all have to "conclude" what we already assume. I'd rather deal with the first principles that give rise to the specific exegetical conclusions. As you said, we each have our own heroes.

The idea being pushed by Preaching Peace is not a new one. Dodd made a powerful argument in the last century against propitiation in his "The Bible and the Greeks," more than capably answered by Roger Nicole and Leon Morris.

I don't deny that people of genius disagree with me. However, in my view they are profoundly wrong. Turning a fully propitiatory sacrifice into merely an example of divine love and sacrifice strikes me as a pretty vacuous victory. But, as my old Area Minister (Bray) used to say, "You may be right."

Bob Wilson said...

Dennnis, thanks much for clarifying your approach! This is fun.

Actually Kim supports "propitiation" but never calls it "impossible to avoid." I was questioning your own words in the previous response.

I agree precisely that having a theology congruent with one's exegesis should not necessarily count against it. But it appears to me that "presupposing" a theology apart from wrestling first with the Word makes an objective conclusion even less likely. E.g. I fear it can tempt us to put flawed heroes like Augustine on the same level as Paul. For those who see Scripture as normative, the only way I know to pursue such debates must pass through the humbling work of wrestling with Scripture together.

I do wonder if our reformed tradition's penal propitiation emphasis is less due to the NT's own exposition than to our accomodation to the world and powers the Western church was immersed in. But I appreciate your grace and also admit that your interpretation may be better than mine. I already think you're right that atonement as a mere example would be vacuous. I find an overwhelming if variegated sense that Jesus took our place and offers a profound and objective provision and victory. I totally agree with you that it assaults our pride, and should lead us to glorify God.

Glenn Layne said...

I frankly don't trust McClaren at all, despite the fact that he has numerous insights on church, evangelism and society. He is simply a disaster as a theologian, and bad theology poisons the well of the church.

Glenn Layne said...

RE: Non-violent atonement, check this out:

Bob Wilson said...

Glenn, thanks for the interesting critique of non-violence (though the link on the exegesis of propitiation didn't seem to work).

RE: Brian McLaren--I frankly do enjoy him a lot, despite the fact that he has numerous critics of his motives and agenda. He is simply a tour-de-force as a theologian, and simulating theology enriches the wellspring of the church.