Thursday, October 13, 2016

New Highs in Difficult Christian Scholarship

Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders, editors, Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics

Atonement holds an ambiguous position within Christian systematic theology. For Temple-era Jews, atonement bought expiation for particular sins, through participation in Levitical ritual. But Christians believe true atonement forgives all sins, including Original Sin, through Christ’s death on the cross. Ordinary Christians in Sunday pews may find that explanation satisfying. But what, realistically, does that mean? High-minded working theologians have sought a self-contained definition of atonement for two millennia, coming no closer to finding it.

This book reproduces the proceedings of the third annual Los Angeles Theological Conference, January 2015. Twelve scholarly monographs by fourteen authors explore different avenues of what “atonement” means at the transcendent level. These seminarians present copious evidence, marshaled from both Scripture and prior theologians, describing some theory of how Christ’s death and resurrection change us. And though I’ve sometimes written that “this book isn’t for everybody,” this book sets a bold standard in intellectual exclusivity.

Reviewing the twelve individual papers seems daunting, particularly since I, a purely amateur theologian, don’t really understand several. This from a guy who reads Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alvin Plantinga before bed. But many of these scholarly discursions address prior writers, or rely on terminology non-specialists won’t recognize (“dyothelitism”?). Be prepared, in reading this collection, to fetch your smartphone for cross-references. I can only recommend this book to ambitious, intellectually minded Christian audiences who read cautiously

We can, without parsing each article, deduce some broad generalizations. For instance, these scholars pretty uniformly reject “penal substitutionary atonement,” the belief that Christ, in dying, took humanity’s sin upon himself. Christ died for our sins, as your evangelical cousin hollers, but Christ didn’t die in our sins. However, after reading this book, I cannot make more specific statements: we have twelve reasons why penal substitutionary atonement doesn’t work, and twelve theories postulating what does.

I encounter some problem when, upon finding something enlightening or problematic within certain articles, cross-check the authors’ credentials. This book collects a mostly male, entirely Protestant, preponderantly Calvinist roster of seminary scholars and classroom intellectuals. Of the fourteen authors, only three have MDiv degrees, that is, pulpit minister credentials. All currently work as professors or lecturers, a tendency that comes across in their dense prose. This reads like professional scholars writing for other professional scholars.

Therefore, this book lends itself primarily to people who find themselves in teaching positions: scholars, ministers, Sunday School teachers. Because people who professionally serve to guide others’ development need to understand beyond the merely ordinary level, this level of deeper understanding gives them tools to address difficult topics from multiple angles. Anyone who has taught children and other newbies has encountered the dreaded question: “But why?” Having multiple answers helps address and diffuse others’ incomprehension.

Not that purely curious readers, like myself, shouldn’t read this book.I shouldn’t say I “enjoyed” it, because it isn’t fun-time reading; it requires reserving hours for dedicated reading and, where necessary, research. But having done so, I do feel more capacious in my understanding, better equipped to discuss difficult topics. And with this book’s thoroughly footnoted (yes, footnoted, a rarity anymore) sources, I also feel I have more options for more inclusive future study.

I feel obliged to note, before anybody can derail the discussion, that knowledge isn’t necessarily faith. Somebody reading this book without prior faith will find its principles confusing and frustrating, especially as it speculates on Platonic ideals rather than concrete precepts that researchers could investigate in the lab. Theologically open readers may finish this book better informed, but not saved. Remember, Christ himself got most frustrated with the chief priests and scholars of his day.

Despite getting flummoxed by the authors’ respective erudition, I find plenty within these monographs that challenges my thinking. Though I feel no closer to achieving real answers, my Socratic wrestling with deep theological matters can perhaps proceed with more informed, refined tools. I now have names for principles that seemed merely airy-fairy before, helping me compress higher theological concepts into mentally comprehensible concepts. Of course, intellectual comprehension doesn’t hasten salvation. But it helps prevent errors.

As someone who’s complained volubly at times about Christian writing’s tendency toward soft thinking and anti-intellectualism, books like this energize my trust in fellow-travelers. It reminds me that the Christian scholarly tradition, often neglected today behind feeling-oriented bromides and low-impact sermonizing, retains its foundations behind the glittering television facade. Though knowing the answers to hard questions won’t save my soul, caring enough to investigate certainly contributes to a heart open to the Spirit’s sanctifying action.

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