Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 3

In parts 1 & 2 I talked firstly about scripture which was in one way or another secondary, either because it was not fully accepted by some churches, or because it wasn’t accepted by any of them any more, and about the Hebrew Scriptures (which scare many Christians) and their interpretations in Judaism.

In Christianity, we do not share the Jewish concept of interpretation as being added to scripture and as part of it, as I talked of in part 2. There is interpretation in the New Testament – most of the content of the Epistles is actually theological interpretation, and Paul can reasonably be regarded as the first Christian theologian. Once the first generation of Christian interpreters were no longer with us, it became much more unlikely that writers of interpretation would be accepted as scripture (though I argue in Part 1 that it is still worth finding out what they were saying!) and after the mid-second century, the canon of scripture was effectively closed. However, we actually are very reliant on the work of various interpreters for what we include in such documents as the Creeds and as Statements of Faith.

Let me take one example, that of the concept of atonement. Much of Protestant Christianity at the moment considers that the basic Christian message is that of Penal Substitutionary Atonement; mankind fell into sin with Adam, the penalty for that is death (and perhaps damnation), and God advanced Jesus (his son) as a perfect, sinless sacrifice to bear the penalty for that sin on behalf of all (or at least potentially all). Indeed, one helper at an Alpha course said to me, when I said I had problems with PSA, “But that IS the gospel”. Well, no.

We would not have had the concept of original sin on which that rests without Augustine’s “City of God” in the Fourth Century. Judaism had (and still has) no concept of original sin in the way it is understood in Christianity. Augustine was a Western theologian, and original sin is not thought of quite the same way in the Eastern churches.

And, indeed, neither is atonement. Augustine laid some of the groundwork for the concept of a “ransom”  – a death paid to ransom us from sin, or Satan, or both – which was dominant for a millennium in the Western Church; the Eastern churches tended to hold that and something like the concept of “Christus Victor” in tension.

In the eleventh century, however, Anselm of Canterbury wrote his “Cur Deus Homo” and introduced the concept of “satisfaction” – in his eyes, taking the concept of honour from the feudal society then dominant, sin was an offence to God’s honour, and all offences to the supremely high honour of God could only be expiated by death (at least!) – which, again, Jesus took upon himself.

Some 400 years later, Martin Luther and John Calvin changed the concept to a judicial one; God’s law demanded death, and that penalty (from which the word “penal”) was taken on himself by Christ; God’s justice (it is argued) demanded a sacrifice, that sacrifice had to be of blood, and only a life of supreme value (because it was both human and divine) would suffice.

Can you get there from a simple reading of scripture? Well, there are passages which talk of debt, there are passages which talk about ransom, there are passages which talk about victory… there is even a passage which comments on the Levitical regime of sacrifice that almost no atonement was possible without blood (not, may I point out, no atonement at all without blood, as is so often misquoted…)

However, as I mentioned in part 1, there is also the simple example of the Maccabean Martyrs, whose deaths were described as an atoning sacrifice for all of Israel – and they weren’t of the blameless or of an individual in whom God and man were uniquely joined.

It took a set of four of the most influential theologians to have lived in the West and over 1400 years of discussion to arrive at PSA. Most of those who espouse this idea (which, I may point out, is not in any of the creeds) have no idea how it developed.

Similarly, unless you read the early Eastern church fathers, you are likely not to understand the concept of the Trinity (which is reflected in the Creeds), and how concepts from Greek philosophy interacted with what we see in scripture to produce the formulas which many of us obediently mouth on a regular basis. Though, in conscience, even if we do read (say) Gregory of Nazianzus, Trinity might still turn out to be “a holy mystery beyond the grasp of human intellect”…

My suggestion for this part is that, despite the fact that they are often difficult to read (scary!), and always extremely dated in their viewpoints, we really ought to read the more prominent theologians if we want to understand our current beliefs better. And, of course, my hope is that if we understand how we got to PSA better, we will abandon it as a concept of atonement…

It might be thought that in three parts and over three thousand words, I might have exhausted the subject. Not so; on to part 4…

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