A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin
by Tony Jones
The JoPa Group , 2012
Penitentially present to RD readers for just a minute during Holy Week, I want to welcome a new Kindle-only book from Tony Jones: A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin.
I have never met Tony Jones, and I was initially inclined to offer a sneer instead of a review. I am still inclined toward sniping, as you will see, but the easy snipe just won’t do this time. I’ve thought about it, and (God forbid) I’ve even prayed about it. I conclude that the old Common Front principle of “no enemies on the Left” really ought to apply right now, at a moment when anyone who is honestly seeking to recast troublesome old Christian doctrines should be seen as an ally and not an enemy.
A Better Atonement has been promoted as good reading for Lent, when the meaning of the crucifixion is especially on the minds of serious Christians. But it can and should be read at any time by anyone who’s even considering whether “that old-time religion” isn’t quite good enough any more.
What I started out writing, churlishly and petulantly, is that I could only surmise that the market for books like this consists mainly of somewhat innocent readers; of people who whose only previous conception of Christ’s atoning work is of the standard, unreconstructed, washed-in-the-blood variety. For them, discovering what Jones is writing about would come as manna in the wilderness, and in that regard Jones has performed a mitzvah by publishing this book.
“Penal substitution” is the proper name for the viewpoint Jones wishes to challenge. The doctrine holds that God’s holiness is sufficiently offended by human sin, and by my sin in particular, that someone has to pay the punishment, someone has to clear the debt. Jesus’ willed sacrifice on the cross is what does it. His willingness to submit to humiliation and torture and death reconciles humans to God, and His perfect righteousness now becomes my righteousness before God’s judgment throne: it is imputed to me. The Lamb of God’s perfect sacrifice atones for my sinfulness; by His blood I am healed. That’s the general idea.
“Penal substitution” goes back a long, long time, but its classic formulation may be found in the thought of a 12th-century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury. As a medieval figure, Anselm was obviously familiar with honor systems. Not hard to see why he would imagine God’s honor being offended and the necessity of “giving satisfaction” somehow. The Reformers would later throw out a lot of the old stuff, but not this. John Calvin in particular did his own extensive riffs on substitutionary atonement.
Penal substitution is what the vast majority of fundamentalist preachers still feed to their flocks on the plains of ignorance. But might we have reasonably expected the flocks now grazing in emergent pastures to have advanced beyond the “Jesus paid it all” scheme without any help from Tony Jones?
Why a Theology of Blood Sacrifice Needs Interrogation
In penitential mode, I do understand well the need to celebrate any move by anyone at any time to lift the oppression and misery that wrong ideas about salvation and the afterlife still visit upon anxious Christians.
It may sound strange to people who haven’t been there, but growing up with hellfire ringing in one’s ears every Sunday still generates real suffering and real damage that scars young people for life. So too with the supposed antidote to eternal fire: Christ’s redeeming blood. One might be able to make a case for a theology that is painful to bear but intellectually defensible. The bloody sacrifice idea, however, is is wrong in both senses. It does not simply perpetuate human suffering (after all, how much horrific violence gets consciously or unconsciously justified by the idea that the Father allows his Beloved Son to be violated and killed “for a good cause”?); the “satisfaction” idea is also pretty dubious on biblical grounds.
As an aside, I remember being properly and thoughtfully admonished by respected elders of the very liberal church I served in New York that it was confusing and potentially hurtful to our visitors to include old gospel hymns expressing washed-in-the-blood theology during regular worship services (as I was wont to do). If hymns like that were going to show up in our services, there needed to be a clear explanation that no one there still actually clung to such barbarously bad theology.
In view of the damaging effects of such theology, what’s not to like about Jones busting out with A Better Atonement? Well, the too-clever subtitle creates a degree of initial resistance. Only human beings can be called depraved. Doctrines, like the doctrine of Original Sin, can be called damnable or damaging or doggone disastrous. But not depraved.
What Jones is getting at, of course, is what this damnable doctrine holds to be true: that we humans come into the world depraved, accursed, and enslaved to sin. Good old David Brooks, resident theologian at the New York Times, reminded us recently of John Calvin’s belief that infants come out of their mothers’ wombs filled with depravity, and of G.K. Chesterton’s quip that original sin is “the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.”
Jones wants to lift the original curse and substitute a bit more original blessing. Not bad, of course, but not even close to an original insight. Leaving aside Matthew Fox’s pathbreaking book published under the title Original Blessing almost 30 years ago, what about the many critiques of St. Augustine’s doctrine going back for centuries?
As for how Jones seeks to re-frame how Christ draws us humans to God, this too has been done already, and done to a fare-thee-well; to the point that most reasonably literate Christians can easily reel off the names of some key figures along this path: philosopher and historian Rene Girard, Gil Baillie (Girard’s foremost Catholic expositor), Walter Wink, James Alison, S. Mark Heim, Rita Nakashima Brock, and others.
Jones acknowledges the importance of Rene Girard’s profound reflections (in Things Hidden From the Foundation of the World) on mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry, and the Christian gospels’ attempted decomposition or disruption of the cycle of sacrificial violence. But in my view Jones does not sufficiently acknowledge the contributions of the many pioneering theologians who have worked this same territory. Even his understanding of Girard seems to come somewhat at secondhand, via Alison.
It’s as though we are getting a parallax view, through a post-evangelical lens, of matters viewed quite clearly by liberal scholars and openly progressive Christian believers in the West for a very long time now. And also of matters viewed clearly, and quite differently, for two millennia by Christianity’s Eastern Orthodox tradition, which never had the bloody cross as its central focus. The Eastern tradition shows us Christ Pantokrator sustaining the world and raising or exalting humanity to a higher plane, rather than descending into suffering and death among utterly corrupted humans. A few years back Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker did a stunning job of exposing the importance of this tradition, soteriologically speaking, in Saving Paradise.
Tony Jones is not quite ready to take the Eastern view, let alone the Tillichian view that there is ultimately no conflict at all between God’s love and God’s justice. He is not going to leave his emergent evangelicals that far behind.
The Emergent—and the Emergency
Tony Jones holds the title of theologian-in-residence for a suburban Minneapolis emergent community called Solomon’s Porch. He is something of a celebrity in emergent church circles, as is Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in suburban Grand Rapids. Both are fortyish, hipsterish white guys with well-functioning brains and impressive resumes. Both make a real point of letting you know just how smart and how hip they are. Probably necessary in order to build an audience, but also cloying.
Just as Jones is now trying to make a splash with A Better Atonement, so Bell made some waves a year ago by proclaiming in Love Wins that God’s heart might just be big enough to permit nonbelievers to enjoy eternal felicity, and that God certainly blesses nonbelievers in this present life. Bell is still on the book tour circuit in the wake of the considerable media bounce he got from staking out a mildly universalist position. No one should be surprised to learn that the good pastor is relocating himself from square Grand Rapids to Los Angeles, where sheep and goats freely mingle.
Trying to get a fix on what “emergent” actually means isn’t easy, and movement leaders say that that is part of the point. Fixed definitions are so very 20th century, and the Emergent Church is nothing if not postmodern and label-evading. The Emergent Church is not a fixed form but a conversation, they say, and if being part of the conversation makes you scratch your head a little, that’s a good thing.
One can see the appeal to well-educated professionals who can’t quite let go of the God concept altogether but who would be embarrassed to be found in a two-thirds-empty church with lots of blue-haired ladies and unenlightened preaching and an old organ wheezing along with those old, old hymns. And, to be clear, the appeal of the emergents cuts across the usual lines: it’s not restricted to people emerging from the old-school evangelical mold. Some liberal mainline congregations, or initiatives from those congregations aimed at bringing in younger folks, have also taken to styling themselves as emergent or emerging. Writing recently in a Los Angeles Times Op Ed, Philip Clayton notes that what all of the emergent communities that count themselves broadly Christian have in common is an attraction to the “radical teachings of Jesus.”
Clayton is right about the common denominator. But this, to me, also points to the real test of the emergents’ social power and staying power. Can these communities and their leaders get beyond their preoccupation with what they are not (i.e., not doctrinally rigid, not entombed in stale ecclesial forms, not wedded to antique worship practices) and actually grasp just how radical Jesus’ teachings are in relation to this 21st-century American culture? Specifically, can they demonstrate a Jesus-like revolutionary resistance in relation to a culture of unprecedented social inequality—and of unprecedented and appalling economic, racial, military, penal, environmental, and psychological violence?
This is the test, I think. But in applying such a severe test, I also know how picky and how peevish I am being. When a good friend and colleague asked me to consider why I want to lay this heavy burden on the emergent leaders, I was forced to conduct a simple thought experiment.
My thought experiment goes like this: Imagine that the emergent leaders and emergent communities all go away, leaving not a trace. What’s then left of progressive Christianity in 20-30 years? Ummmmmm….
For a few days at least, it’s still Lent: still a good season to have oneself exposed as a supercilious jerk.