Blog Template Theology of the Body: More on Federal Theology: Covenant and the Atonement

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

More on Federal Theology: Covenant and the Atonement

If the need to locate an authentic and responsible grammar of the atonement should turn a modern theologian to Scriptural resources, she would there be faced with an increasing variety of complex metaphors which seemingly avoids such systemization; though St. Paul summarizes his soteriology neatly in at least one instance, Biblical interpreters note that the New Testament writers present us with a wide variety of categories for articulating “how” Jesus’ death changes the plight of humanity.

Despite rich Scriptural options for understanding the Atonement, Anselm’s foundational 11th century treatment of God’s objective Calvary “transaction” for humanity cites little or no Scripture; thus Anselm has been critiqued for relying too heavily on available cultural references to contemporary feudal structures. Anselm posits the familiar atonement model, in which demands for divine justice must be satisfied before forgiveness is granted. Presuming an integrated moral order, presided over by a just God, and with concern for the depth of human sin and the inability of humanity to provide for its remedy, Anselm’s Latin Satisfaction Theory describes a human offense so grave that only God can pay the ensuing debt owed, though it is properly to be paid by human debtors. Given human inability to rectify intolerable damages, God assumes humanity as a propitiatory offering, suffering the divine punishment in His own death as both God and man; thus God is justly enabled to forgive sins, when the innocent Man has paid the price and satisfied God’s judgment.

In evaluating such grammar, critics have noted the overly penal tendency of a presumptively feudal model, which seems to emphasize an abstraction of a retributive justice somehow incumbent on an infuriated God, at the conceptual expense of God’s free, creative love. Christians in dialogue between traditions of the East and West note problems with a penal transaction in Western modes which does violence to Eastern emphasis on Jesus as Rescuer/Restorer. Notions of Christ’s propitiation also potentially obscures the teleological nature of God’s justice throughout God’s creation and covenant, which is always ordered to human flourishing and fulfillment.

It is important to note here that economic/transactive metaphors are not unique to Anselm; the Scriptural tradition holds Jesus explaining the remission of sins as the enactment of a “covenant.” Thus I propose that the theme of covenant may provide the necessary model for conceptualizing the atonemen. As Cousar puts it, the doctrine of atonement can be best understood as an interchange: God’s making Christ to be sin results in our becoming righteous, by enacting the event where sinful humanity are brought into a right relationship with God. I propose that a resolution for such issues requires a Scriptural grammar to reconcile God’s teleologically creative, merciful will with the apparently retributive transaction at Calvary. At this point, it is significant to note, with Cousar, that following Paul’s “summary” statement of the atonement in the I Corinthian discourse, we find Paul’s referring back to Jesus’ own understanding of His atonement: “this is my body, given for you…the new covenant in my blood.”

As Paul reiterates this statement in I Corinthians 1:24, Cousar notes the rather ambiguous uper in both passages, “for,” as encompassing several meanings, whether generally, “for the good of,” and “in aid of,” or, specifically, “in the name of,” “in behalf of,” or even “in place of.” It seems to me that these “words of institution,” with emphasis on the notion of “covenant,” suffice to locate a conceptual model that presents the atonement as both teleologically creative and juridically “transactive.”

On a covenantal conceptual model, we take covenant in its broad sense, as the unificatory binding of persons into a new entity, wherein they are “reckoned” as one. The sense of this binding is both transactive, in that it accrues through forms of exchange, and creative, in that the transaction so constitutes a new entity. Ultimately, the exchange is unificatory, in that the covenanting parties are intimately joined together through their exchange and consequent intermingling of their persons. In effect, covenanting parties are freely joined together to create a newly unified relationship.

With such a framework in mind, the atonement could be explained with reference to two essential aspects of God’s teleological will in the original creation: God created humanity for harmonious, unified existence between creature and Creator; but the relationship is also to be free, thus encompassing two components, both the inevitable, ontological relationship of the creature to the Creator, and the freely consensual covenanted relationship between (free) creature and (free) Creator. The Genesis narrative describes the creation as consummated by God in the institution of a covenant, which language of exchange further “seals” God and humanity together, and gives final expression to the union which God wills between His own freely consenting will and the freely consenting will of humanity: we learn here that God willed a creature in the divine image, who would consequently freely choose to engage with God. This is the divine will for humanity.

As the story goes, the harmonious relationship consummated by covenant is undone by the breach of the consensual covenant, such that the human breach alters even the ontological reality of the divine-human relationship itself. The free enactment of the breach is effective to severe all ontological ties with the Creator, since the covenantal relationship inextricably attended and consummated the creature’s relationship to the Creator. Humanity then freely chooses to live in the disordered gap between creature and Creator, a gap enacted and exacerbated over time, ever deepening the progressing history of humanity’s free falling away from God. As covenanted Creator, however, God strives after His creatures, to return them both ontologically and covenantally back to Himself, and thereby to renew the creation.

It is then properly God the Creator who again initiates the ontological creation by inextricably joining divine and human life in Jesus of Nazareth.

In Christ, in whom God is essentially united to man, the consummation of the creative relationship is renewed through the free consent of Jesus to the will of God. This human consent must be so total as to lead to the ultimate surrender of the Creature, even to the point of the unique physical suffering and abandonment of Jesus.

In Christ, God is united to man, and the creature is united perfectly to the divine. On the Cross, that unification is tested as Jesus faces the horrible gap of humanity’s breach with God, and, rather than embracing its temptation to say “no” to God, enters its deathly consequence fully; but in Jesus, the ontological unification of the creature and Creator withstands the temptation of separation, because Jesus enters that night within the divine covenant, according to the will of God- this separation is the act of obedience, and as such, the gap does not prevail. With the Resurrection, we see that the teleological unity between the divine and the creature has survived humanity’s breach in Jesus Christ. It remains for all who would re-unite to God to join themselves transactively to this event by means of their own symbolic appropriation of Christ’s transaction in the sacraments.

Thus, the creation has been re-enacted and re-consummated at Calvary, where divine and human lives, united ontologically, are united in the ultimate consent, and humanity’s breach is encountered and surpassed. God and the creature are again united in Christ; and reaching to take hold of the hem of Christ’s garment, united with Him in baptism, united with Him in the eating of His flesh and blood, the human person appropriates the union of divine and creature which occurs uniquely in Christ.

In this way, we see that the concept of covenant permits the expression of Jesus’ death as both vicarious substitution (in terms of performing perfect human consent to the divine covenant) and participatory event (in terms of the ultimate union of divine and human in Jesus of Nazareth). Such a reading is corroborated by the Pauline discourse on the same in Romans 6:1-11, where Paul (with echoes of the premise of II Corinthians 5:14) assumes the corporate nature and function of Christ as the God-man, in whose perfect consent all persons are made participants through their own covenantal allegiance to the Paradigm of Creation, in whom the divine and the human live in re-created, re-constituted, ontological and covenantal relationship.

This model is advantageous in dealing with the problems of traditional notions of expiation and propitiation. On the model proposed here, any Scriptural use of cultic language to describe Jesus’ death becomes a reminder that the repeated sacrifices (made in Jewish worship), as symbols to appropriate covenant renewal with God, are now rendered unnecessary, since in Jesus full and final re-unification of the divine and human life and covenant has been ultimately restored. Thus, when approaching the crucial issue of “what God does with respect to human sinfulness at Calvary,” or more precisely, “how it is that Christ’s death changes the situation of sinful humanity,” we would respond that it is not so much that God requires an appeasing sacrifice; rather, humanity requires a new creation and a covenant partner who will engage God’s promises on their behalf, thereby re-enacting and re-enabling the relationship which God originally willed with His creature, in ontological union and free consent. It is in Christ that these necessary realities occur.

Nonetheless, images of expiation remain because Jesus is ultimately faithful, and the transaction is ultimately performed, “at the cost of” His blood, wherein the salvific re-unification is enacted as the reality of the new creation: God and man are at one in the life-blood of Jesus of Nazareth, which is expelled as the consummate consent of the creature to the Creator. In Christ humanity has both joined God and said Yes to God, such that there is nothing more to be said; the divine-human relationship is finally perfected, and the covenant has finally been sealed.