Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Cohort Gathers This Thursday October 5

Greetings all,

We have our next cohort gathering this Thursday, October 5 from 11:30-1:00 at the Flying Saucer in the pool room.

Our conversation will revolve around the idea/theology of the atonement in a postmodern context. We will be discussing Scot McKnight's new book that deals with this subject and record the conversation in order that he can make changes based on our feedback. You do not "have to have read" to come and be part of the conversation. We will have someone summarize McKnight's argument so we can all participate.

If you have any questions email me at dkinser@stbs.net and if this is your first Cohort, you have to fight...I mean your lunch is free. Sorry, too much Fight Club;)

See you there,


Taylor Burton-Edwards said...

An Excursus on Atonement


First, great meeting today... I hope I didn't monopolize. I just have lots to say on the topic-- something I've been working on and writing about in a variety of venues (none of them published in real books yet... but maybe someday) for the last 15 years or so.

Part of my passion about this, I think, comes from the fact that I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood-- mostly Orthodox Jewish. In my public elementary school, on Yom Kippur, there would often be only two people in the class-- myself, and one of the other "goyim," and that wasn't usually the teacher. The largest class I remember in 7 years of Yom Kippur there was 6 people.

That, and I was Southern Baptist. I mean, REAL Southern Baptist. I knew it was my job to convince all these people to believe in Jesus so they could be saved from frying in Hell forever. And I tried every argument I could think of. No dice.

Eventually I quit trying to convert these people and tried listening and learning from them instead.

What's become clear to me over the years is that any account of the death of Jesus that directly connects that death with either atonement or ANY kind of a sacrifice is a complete non-starter. God had settled that question with Abraham. Genesis 22 was a powerful story whose purpose was to say God does NOT want humans to be sacrificed, period. Which also means there's no way that human sacrifice can ever be comprehensible within Jewish ritual or moral life, period.

And Jesus was Jewish. And so were the earliest Christians.

So there's that.

Then there's been the learning about sacrifice. I'd always been taught that sacrifice meant giving something up until it hurts, even if that something was one's own life. I'd also been taught that ritually the sacrifice "happened" (i.e., was effective, DID something) when the blood was shed. Indeed-- that the blood was what was really sacrificed in some way.

Turns out that was wrong, too. At least mostly. This got nailed into me by a Reformed rabbi who taught the Psalms seminar I took in college. I was talking away about Jewish sacrificial rituals along these lines and he said, "No, no, no! We would NEVER do that with blood! You did not read that in the Torah!"

This, in the middle of a presentation I was making.

Got my attention.

I've been reading much more closely ever since. And asking a lot of uncomfortable questions of folks who come across as sure as I did.

Here's the deal on sacrifice. The point at which a Hebrew sacrifice (indeed, sacrifices in many cultures) isn't when the animal is killed or the blood is shed. It's when the smoke and the aroma from the altar rises to the sky. And in nearly every sacrificial rite described in the Tanakh, the blood is not part of what gets put on the altar. Near the altar or at its base, yes, but not ON it. You don't sacrifice blood, because life is in the blood. The one exception was a very rare one-- the red heifer sacrifice. And it's not quite a sacrifice, technically-- since technically the burning of the red heifer had to take place outside the camp, NOT on the altar in the tabernacle or at the temple. Oh, and the altar? It's a big grill. It's not where animals are killed or their blood let out of their bodies (that's done in a separate place, and the blood is collected in bowls, then the priests or attendants take the bowls to where the blood needs to go). Read the description of these things anywhere in the OT, and that's what you'll find, plain as day.

So there's another reason Jesus cannot be a sacrifice for sins or anything else from a Jewish perspective-- not only is human sacrifice forbidden in principle, but Jesus wasn't even sacrificed at all. There's no record anywhere that he was burned and his body reduced to ash.

Then there's when Jesus was executed. Passover. Not Yom Kippur-- which IS about dealing with sin-- but Pesach, whose lamb is nowhere is described as a sin offering. Covenant, likely (but that's not the same as a sacrifice-- more on that later). Thank offering or offering of well-being? Those categories fit if you're talking sacrificially at all. The lamb isn't sacrificed, though-- at least not as a holocaust. Rather, it's cooked for dinner. It's blood isn't sacrificed or cooked.

What's the blood of the lamb got to do with it all? At passover, a good bit. Blood is a sign of life. God gives life-- and we receive that gift. God appoints that life, which is in the blood (in the biblical Hebrew worldview), cleanses or protects life. In the Exodus story, it's clear that the life from the blood of the lamb acts as a protective power against the angel/messenger of death. The blood of the lamb in this way delivers the people from the power of death, and in turn, from slavery in Egypt-- though not because the blood does this-- but because the people obeyed God's call to use this gift in this way.

Jesus died at Passover. The reading of his death at passover thus has to do with deliverance from the power of death and from slavery... to Rome or any other power.

Jesus did not die at Yom Kippur. Had that been the perspective of early Christianity, or had that happened, there would have been a very different set of symbols used to describe him. He could not have been called "the lamb of God." Lambs are for passover. Goats are for Yom Kippur.

Oh, and there are two goats at Yom Kippur-- one that IS sacrificed (well, this is a sin offering, so technically only its fat is sacrificed-- the rest is burnt outside the camp) and whose blood is used for Kippur (atonement) proper ("covering" of the spiritual gunk that had accumulated on or around the sacred items used in Israel's worship), the other of which is not killed at all-- but it rather driven into the wilderness (Azazel) after the unintentional sins of the people are laid upon its head. This one is the scapegoat. It represents forgiveness RATHER than atonement. Atonement is covering and therefore apparent cleansing. Forgiveness is driving sin away.

Hebrews DOES seem to describe Jesus in terms of Yom Kippur. But let's be clear HOW it does that. Jesus isn't the goat or the bull that gets killed. Jesus is the high priest who makes the offerings and performs the acts of atonement. In Hebrews Jesus' high priestly work is consistently contrasted with the ritual work of the Aaronic priesthood. He isn't an Aaronic high priest; he is a high priest after the Order of Melchizedek. What Melchizedek offered to Abram, weary from a battle he had won, was a blessing and bread and wine. There is no mention of him offering sacrifices of other sorts. The primary form of intercession offered by the Aaronic high priest is ritual sacrifices. The primary form of intercession offered by Jesus (Hebrews 5) is prayer and obedience, even to the point of the shedding of his own blood. The offering of his body to God was once for all-- not in the sense that it happened only on the cross, but in the sense that it was a unique offering throughout his life and ministry, including the cross (Hebrews 10). And the comparison in Hebrews 10, by the way, isn't only to atonement-- but more broadly to all to sin offerings (of which Yom Kippur was a particular type with additional features-- namely forgiveness). See Hebrews 10:11.

The logic of Hebrews is again and again to reject the efficacy of all ritual sacrifice, including atoning sacrifices. Why? They just didn't work. They could never get rid of sin. Cover it (atonement), yes. Forgive it (scapegoat-- but this isn't a sacrifice!), sure. But actually break its power entirely. No. Jesus did that-- not through ritual sacrifice, or through sacrifice at all (though that metaphor is used in Hebrews 11:12). He did it (and does it) through prayer, through obedience, through death, and through bread and wine. That's what Hebrews 10:8-9 is saying:

In saying "I have not desired, nor am I pleased with sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings, even for sins, (that is, those offered according to the law)," what he was saying instead was "Look! I have come to do your will." He put aside the first in order to establish the second." (translation mine)

The obedience of Jesus Christ, even to the point of death, was his "sacrifice." The term "sacrifice" in verse 12 doesn't mean sacrifice here at all-- but rather the obedience of Jesus.

His blood isn't described in Hebrews as sacrificial blood (there isn't any of that anyway!) or even atoning blood, but rather covenant blood (See Hebrews 10:29).

So what's that? In the Tanakh (OT), covenants aren't signed. They're cut-- literally. An animal (or more than one sometimes) is cut in two. Its blood (life) returns to the earth. The cut pieces are a witness that says "may this be done to either of us who breaks the terms of our agreement." The violence of the parties comes against this victim. It's life shed brings the hope of new life and peace provided that the agreement that led to this covenant, whose victim's blood (life) cries out to God, continues to be honored. This logic explains why there's all this talk of it being fearful to fall into the hands of God if one who has started on the way of Christ turns back (Hebrews 10:26-31).

The life of Jesus was a life of obedience to God. His broken body and covenant blood (life) spilled is thus God's new covenant with us, to write God's law into our hearts and to forgive our sins (Hebrews 10:16-18 ff). The proviso is that we live the terms of the covenant-- the covenant in which Jesus offered his body all his life and allowed his blood to be shed-- the covenant of obedience to God in the face of all sorts of suffering. As Melchizedek offered bread and wine, Jesus offered body and blood. Jesus the high priest after the order of Melchizedek continues to offer body and blood to us as bread and wine with blessing-- his very life, the pledge of God's covenant with us.

This isn't atonement. But it does transform lives. Hebrews 10:32-39 tell that story. This book is written to people who have been so transformed by the salvation of God in Jesus (not atonement, but new covenant) that they could face persecutions or come alongside people who were being persecuted and suffer with them, suffer the loss of property, and still go and visit prisoners and have compassion on them. (Sounds like the response of the Amish folks in Lancaster County who are establishing a scholarship fund for the children of the man who killed their children!). Why or how did they do this? By not shrinking back, not losing the confidence they have in Christ, but doing the will of God-- just as Jesus himself did.

Will Jewish people today be convinced by this accounting of things? As an intellectual argument, it might at least be somewhat less objectionable, and possibly recognizable as a Jewish-compatible way of thinking about things. Maybe.

But I think the real test isn't whether the argument convinces anyone. It's whether our lives do-- individually and as people called church.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Bob Coons said...

I found out about this cohort gathering too late to join in. I would love to make the next one. How can I get in on it? When/where?