Saturday, April 18, 2015

Why do we keep fighting the Atonement theory battles?

Battling for the supremacy of a particular atonement theory, is counter productive. Here is a very recent example from Michael J. Kruger at the Gospel Coalition website: 'Did Early Christians Believe in Substitutionary Atonement?' Undoubtedly they did to a degree, although it seems they preferred the Battlefield metaphor (Jesus' death is an ambush of his enemies, rescuing the captives and bring peace.) until Anselm reminded us of the Judiciary or City-Gate metaphor (The just punishment of sin is carried out and clemency is simultaneously provided, the former on Jesus and the latter on us.)

Kruger opens his article rightly rebutting the lazy secular historiography that says that various aspects of Christian theology are modern inventions. These types (of the Dan Brown school of theology) should read Origin of the Species before commenting on Christian doctrine! It's an evolution of previous material, not a 'deus machina' of new doctrines. (Even in Islam, which is a 'deux machina' of sorts as Muhammad receives his revelations in the Arabian desert, is a mashup (fan fiction?) of Christianity.) Anyway Kruger says Substitutionary Atonement gets a bad rap for being brought into the limelight by Anselm. (Incidentally you could say the same thing about the Trinity and Athanasius or Original Sin and Augustine, Jesus and the New Testament or even Moses and the Law!) On the one hand I want to cheer Kruger's attacks on the vagaries of Bishop Peter Carnley or Rob Bell. But on the other hand I'm left wondering why he staunchly sticks to the schema of competing atonement theories? Aren't there five different metaphors, some of which get more airtime or prominence than others, which have been more or less favoured through Christian history? Just because the Judiciary (law court) metaphor didn't get as much air time before Anselm doesn't change it's prominence in Romans.

You can see it all in Kruger's final paragraph:
The Epistle to Diognetus shows that the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement and the imputation of Christ's righteousness are not wholesale inventions of later Christians, but were present, at least in seed form, early in the history of Christianity. Did some Christian groups hold other views of such matters? Sure. But the continuity between the teachings of this epistle and the writings of Paul himself (see especially Romans 5) make it evident that the substitutionary atonement/imputation view goes back very early indeed.
But a more fruitful contribution would have been to demonstrate the relative place of each metaphor in Scripture, and note how the various 'atonement theories' is simply drawing out the Biblical focus of a particular atonement metaphor. Given the rise of Biblical Theology, it seems wiser to note within a given piece of Scripture which Atonement metaphors are present or emphasied.

[Mosaic of Jesus carrying the Cross from Christ the King Chapel, photograph by Mark Scott.]


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Gender and the Australian Government

This quote about the gender of those who can be married in Australia comes from page 62 of the 'Guidelines for Marriage Celebrants' document, which was updated last year.
"Under Australian law, a marriage may only be solemnised between a man and woman. In most cases, this will be straightforward. However, where a party to a marriage is transgender, intersex or of an indeterminate or unspecified gender the question may be more difficult to determine."
The guidelines recommend both sensitivity and clarity because while under the Marriage Act (1961) only a man may marry a woman and vice versa, people are legally allowed to change gender. So on page 63 the guidelines state:
"A person’s sex at the time of their birth is not necessarily determinative of their sex at a given time in the future. A person who has undergone gender re-assignment surgery can marry as their reassigned gender, provided that they are marrying someone of the opposite sex."
The current working assumption of the Australian Government is that gender and sex are separate concepts. Sex is described as congentigal and biological while gender is cultural and existential. Significantly gender may be altered on official documents. So on page 2 of the 'Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender' this is the opening statement:
"The Australian Government recognises that individuals may identify and be recognised within the community as a gender other than the sex they were assigned at birth or during infancy or as an indeterminate sex and/or gender, and this should be recognised and reflected in their personal records held by Australian Government departments and agencies."
Interestingly there is no rationale provided for the distinction between "gender" and "sex" or the purpose of changing gender. However it's clear that while the Marriage Act (1961) only allows two people, one from either traditional gender category, to marry; fluidity is allowed, as long as it's officially documented.

Thinking Theologically
  • A. There's no reason to disrupt the traditional gender categories established in Genesis and assumed by Jesus. 
  • B. Personhood, which includes gender categories, is made of three parts:
    1. Situational: (Ethos) Biological material such as chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics etc (Christians would include an ideal, pre-Fall set of gender characteristics)
    2. Existential: (Pathos) An inner life such as your self perception etc (Christians would include a spiritual dimension)
    3. Normative: (Logos) External recognition, sociological cues, the perceptions of others etc (Christians would include divine recognition)
  • C. Note that exceptions show only that there are exceptions. 
    • They merit attention and explanation
    • But in and of themselves don't prove that an argument invalid
  • D. The Australian Government division between "gender" and "sex" is an invalid one because gender is a larger metaphysical category, as shown above, while biological "sex" is simply a description of one part of personhood, the 'situational' dimension.
    • It's a fallacy to reduce gender (or personhood for that matter) to a blood test.
    • Incidentally, this reveals that the Australian Government want their modernist cake (sex is merely congential biology) and their post-modern eating (and gender is whatever you what it to be). 
  • E. The variety of cultural expressions of the two genders through time and space simply show that the three parts of gender are presented differently through time and space. Note however this is variety within a spectrum of two traditional genders, not the modern subversion of these two categories, an important historical note. In other words there have always been a rough cluster of male and female situational aspects to gender, a rough cluster of male and female existential aspects to gender and a rough cluster of external clues to being either male or female. 
    • That people changed genders, became eunuchs, cross-dressed or had surgery, didn't change the cultural clustering around two genders across these three aspects of being human.
  • F. The theological gap, as I've observed previously is in our language and pastoral care, how do we respectfully describe and care for people who are transitioning genders?

The Presbyterian Church

At the moment there is talk within the Presbyterian Church about withdrawing as marriage celebrants if the Marriage Act (1961) is changed. However it already has! We're participating in something that according to the guidelines, that already exist, undermines traditional gender categories. It seems clumsy and unnecessarily political to withdraw from the Act when we haven't sorted out what culpability is and looks like as citizens and consumers. Given how litigious western culture is becoming and how controversial traditional gender categories are, we need to move immediately to create a legal defence fund for Presbyterian ministers and organisations.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Atonement Metaphors

Five complementary and sometimes overlapping metaphors are used in Scripture to describe different aspects of the work of Christ. This is a more helpful schema than viewing the atonement as a battleground of rival theories. The Ransom theory (popular since the early church) highlights the Slave-market and Battlefield metaphors. Anselm's Satisfaction theory reminds us of the Law-court and Temple metaphors. The more modern phraseology of "penal substitution", like the Satisfaction theory, encapsulates the force of the Law Court and Temple metaphors. Even the unpopular Moral-influence theory highlights the power of the Temple metaphor. (In some ways the temple sacrifices are a precursor to theatre, a living parable where the scapegoat suffers instead of the watching audience.)