Hebrews, PSA and dishwashers

A few weeks ago I found myself trying to multitask in the kitchen at the Alpha course I’m helping with, loading and unloading a commercial dishwasher while trying to explain to another helper why I really don’t buy into PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) as an atonement theory. Now I’m a man, and multitasking is therefore not something I’m good at, so I wasn’t giving the theology as much attention as I should have, nor was I able to recall the exact wording of Hebrews with my hands full of plates. In fact, I haven’t yet given Hebrews sufficient detailed attention, as I’ve tended to think that it speaks specifically to Jewish Christians, among whom I do not number.

James quoted Hebrews to me, but in a very general way – under the Levitical system of sacrifices “without blood there is no forgiveness”, and I suggested that if that were what the writer was saying, then the writer was wrong in terms of the Levitical system, because not all sin offerings involved animal sacrifice – it was perfectly possible to sacrifice grain (Lev. 2:1-16; 6:14-18; 7:9-10; 10:12-13). There the conversation ended, because for him it was not viable to suggest that any part of scripture was mistaken.
Sorry, James. I do try not to argue outside the hermaneutical assumptions of those I’m talking to, but on this occasion I wasn’t giving you my full attention.In fact, the relevant passage is Hebrews 9:22, which reads “Indeed, under the Law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (NIV). The word “almost” is crucial, particularly as in the Greek it probably governs the whole sentence, including “there is no forgiveness of sins”. A better translation might be “One might almost [say that] under the Law everything is purified by blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (some translations do render it this way).What the writer of Hebrews is therefore saying here is not that there was no possible alternative to a blood sacrifice in order that sins should be forgiven, but that a blood sacrifice was very clearly a valid way in which sins could be forgiven under the Levitical system.

There were others, though. Fire (Lev. 13:52,55; 16:27; Num. 31:23; Water (Exod. 19:30; Lev. 15:5; 16:26,28; 22:6; Num. 31:24); Incense (Num. 16:46-48); Intercession (Exod. 32:30-32) and Prayer (of confession and contrition) (Ps. 32 and 51). By the time Hebrews was written, confession, contrition and making amends was already becoming the primary model for sins being forgiven.

Indeed, the Temple sacrificial system was not the primary system for Jews in the diaspora. Granted, the fact that it was there, and was observing the high holy days (in particular the feast of the Atonement, to which a lot of reference is made in Hebrews) was comforting both in a vicarious way, by dealing with atonement in respect of unknown sins and as a hope of eventual attendance there. But it wasn’t the centre of their day to day religious practice; that was the home and secondarily the synagogue or hall of learning. Judaism had found an accomodation for working without a Temple during the long Babylonian exile and during the period of return before the Temple was rebuilt, and it wasn’t any more absolutely vital.

What I arrive at is the conclusion (with which I think the author of Hebrews would agree) that there really was no absolute necessity for sins to be forgiven via a blood sacrifice to end all blood sacrifices. This is good, as I would have extreme difficulty in respecting a deity who did demand this as the one and only way of being forgiven. This is one of the many reasons why I do not like PSA as a theory of the principal importance of Christ; it demands that I see God as something I know he is not.

On the other hand, it was probably high time that blood sacrifices were ended as a means of seeking forgiveness for sins (and for other purposes), and seeing Jesus’ death in that way was a viable image for one part of the complex argument of Hebrews. It had been high time when Psalm 40:6 and Hosea 6:6 were written. Or Amos 5:21-24.

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. Forget sacrifices, unless they are of yourself in imitation of Christ.

One Response to “Hebrews, PSA and dishwashers”

  1. Chris Says:

    I find James Allison’s liturgical point of view very interesting:- http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng11.html

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