Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Some thoughts on Atonement

Colin Gunton in his book The Actuality of Atonement explores the philosophy behind metaphor and three significant metaphors of atonement: victory, justification, and sacrifice.

Gunton reasons and concludes entirely from the perspective of the theology of Christendom. How is reconciliation perceived before the time of Jesus and his own particular uniqueness? I am confident that it was perceived just by reading the psalms with all their turmoil and joy.

Even a superficial search for Hebrew and Greek words translated as atonement or reconciliation produces a pattern from which one might draw short-circuited conclusions. I find myself wondering how much I can open up this particular 'cover' designed by Tyndale within my own limits of understanding. I think we have been overwhelmed with explanation when we needed something quite different: a form of hearing and doing that is well established in the Senior Testament and also attested to in the New Testament.

What Gunton provides in this context is threefold:
  • a review of rationalism using Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Kierkegaard as examples of the limits of rationality, and how science uses metaphor to express our perceptions of reality (chapters 1-2)
  • three metaphors of atonement: victory, justification, and sacrifice to act as a lens in our view of reality (chapters 3-5)
  • a reasoning with this lens as to how the community of reconciliation ought to function in the world (chapters 6-7)
Each of these sections is valuable and requires a careful reading. I found I could only read a few pages at a time. 

The question remains for me as to whether I can begin to organize my thoughts around a set of equivalent passages reasoning up to the New Testament rather than reasoning with New Testament conclusions already determined.  What if one worked from the one day of Genesis 2:4, to the knowledge of evil that produces the primary disorder, to the critique of Law and the final satisfaction in Job 42:17, to the overshadowing wings of the cherubim (Psalms 17:8, 57:1, 91:4), to the living of God with humanity expressed by the tabernacle, and from that seat of mercy to the formation of the people of God and the great assembly (Psalm 22:25), and in parallel through the experience of exile together (Psalms 137:1) and with its individual (Lamentations 3:1) speaking for the people and not failing in engagement, and also in the background, as in the New Testament, the one on whose shoulder the beloved comes up from the desert (Song 8:5).

I do not think we would find anything lacking in this shepherding of the people and the tribes of the nations.  Then we could ask afresh why we have the actualization of this consolation in the person of Jesus and the work with which he finishes creation and redemption and with which he, in consecrating himself, prays us into unity (John 17:21), a unity that puts purification into its true context (1 John 3:3). I think I would continue to agree with Gunton's conclusions, but I would see them in an earlier light and perhaps help polish the lens which we must all look through in some sense.

And you will note that I did not use the word atonement or reconciliation in this outline.