In this blog, surfers, we are going to discuss substitutionary atonement. Although the blog revolves around substitutionary atonement the blog title is intentionally left without the substitutionary part because the first definition of atonement is the underlying subject of this blog post. The request for reparation of a wrong is what I would like to begin with.
It is time to publicly reject that whole idea of substitutionary or vicarious Atonement theories and repent for the harm this religious relic has caused over the centuries .
… I think it is time to publicly repent for the pain and suffering that the whole idea that we as humans are born faulty and unworthy by some vindictive god who demanded that there be some severe punishment to make up for this same god’s mistake. Therefore, according to creed this God would have to sacrifice his only begotten son, (who is actually himself) to avenge something that really never happened. Do you have any idea how many people throughout history have suffered in fear, humiliation, doubts, at the hands of sick clergy, mobs, abusive husbands, and anybody [who is] into power because of this flawed piece of our theology. It is way past time [to] separate ourselves from this delusion to make a clear and [a] public statement for allowing it to go on for so long.
– Fred Plumer President of the Centre for Progressive Christianity
This is a bold proclamation for a religious leader to make. For a cradle Catholic, such as myself, I am not certain that any person who has grown up kissing the wood of the cross on Good Friday will let this theology of sacrifice go. If this is the first time you have heard the request, to publicly reject substitutionary atonement, now is your chance to enter the debate.
A debate generally has two sides. You have read the position of Fred Plumer, and in the interest of full disclosure, I am of the opinion that Fred is correct. To introduce the opposing side of this debate I have brought you the words of Father Z.
We oh-so-modern Catholics will benefit from clear talk about sin and the physical action of beating our breast to counteract the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” rubbish so prevalent today.
We need Mass precisely because we are not “okay”.
Sinners need a Savior.
A realistic recognition of who we are and who we are not is a necessary starting point for all worthy prayer and liturgical worship.
Fr. Z’s Blog – What Does The Prayer Really Say?
Father Z does not mince words, and much like Fred Plumer is passionate about the atonement subject. If you are like me and experienced deep emotional sadness at the Stations of the Cross, especially during the Triduum, it will not be easy to just drop substitutionary atonement. I don’t want to put words in Fr. Z’s mouth, but I believe he feels we need the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and cannot be without it. Substitutionary atonement continues to be a fundamental theology in all of Christianity, and the roots are deep. The question is; do we need it any longer. Does the future of Christianity need the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins? How did this substitutionary atonement come to be such an important part of Christianity? Bishop Spong offers one explanation.
Self-conscious people always experience loneliness. That doesn’t appear to be a problem for just conscious creatures. Conscious creatures see themselves as part of the universe, they don’t see themselves as separate. But self-conscious people center consciousness in themselves and look out from a different center, and see themselves alienated from, separated from, different than, apart from the rest of the world. That’s why in every human religion that has ever been developed there is some doctrine of atonement to speak to the universal sense of separation. It is the product of self-consciousness. It is the natural state of our humanity.
John Shelby Spong – Chautauqua Institution Speech
The Catholic leaders have published the Catechism of the Church. Within the Catechism is the atonement doctrine that speaks to our sense of separation. Before we can publicly reject substitutionary atonement the doctrine will need to be removed from the Catechism.
Surfers, the writing is on the wall. Atonement theology has one foot in the grave. The change will not happen tomorrow, but it will happen and more quickly than you might think. We must let it go if Christianity is to continue to be viable in the future. The future of Christianity hinges on our ability to shed old outmoded ideas that have a flawed meaning. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Substitutionary atonement is a stumbling block for the Catholic Church, and all of Christianity. It is flawed and if we do not gouge it out and toss it away the whole body of Christianity will continue to suffer. Included next is the text of the Catechism to help you understand what must be removed in order to publicly reject the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
615 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”443 By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.444 Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.445
Jesus consummates his sacrifice on the cross
616 It is love “to the end”446 that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction. He knew and loved us all when he offered his life.447 Now “the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.”448 No man, not even the holiest, was ever able to take on himself the sins of all men and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. the existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons, and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all.
617 The Council of Trent emphasizes the unique character of Christ’s sacrifice as “the source of eternal salvation”449 and teaches that “his most holy Passion on the wood of the cross merited justification for us.”450 and the Church venerates his cross as she sings: “Hail, O Cross, our only hope.”451
Catechism of the Catholic Church
When you have children you are often faced with having to answer a question, or two. Each of my children asked the same question about Adam and Eve, when they reached the age where they studied Genesis in religion class. Were Adam and Eve real people?
Be careful how you answer because there are at least two shells loaded on this topic. 1) If you say “yes” Adam and Eve were real people the very next question becomes a biological one; where did all the people on the earth come from? Surely not just Adam and Eve? Biological scrutiny will not let you pass this question. 2) If you answer the question “no” Adam and Eve were not real people then you come face to face with the the fact that there never was an Adam or an Eve. The next question becomes why does the Bible have the story of Adam and Eve? Children can ask some tough questions.
No Adam and Eve = no Garden of Eden and therefore no original sin. Do the math, if there is no original sin then there is no reason for a sacrifice (substitutionary atonement).
I really do think that’s been a curse to the faith. It’s a mythology. It was added. I mean if you read any of the people who’s done the latest scholarship on atonement, we can track where it came from, how it was added in… Furthermore, I do believe that it’s very clear that Jesus not only opposed the whole sacrificial system but he made it clear that if we repent, that is we accept our responsibility, we make corrective actions, we ask for forgiveness where we can and to take corrective action on those things that we did that caused harm to others, that we’re free to go, we get a fresh start.
Fred Plumer President of the Centre for Progressive Christianity
This notion that we should eliminate substitutionary atonement is not a new concept. It has been around a while, but the Bishops will not tell you about this. You will not hear the sermon on Sunday mention our human condition and the sense of separation that led to the mythology of the atonement doctrine. On this topic our religious leaders duck and cover. This next statement is going to seem harsh, but in the Catholic Church “religious leader” is an oxymoron. True leaders stand out in front of those they lead and have a vision of where they will go. The Bishops have their heels dug into the ground and are holding their people back. Their vision is a return to the days before Vatican II. We can’t go back. Christianity has to keep up with the times, just as it has done for many centuries. Sometime along the way the Church leaders added the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, so sometime along the way they can take it back out. No time like the present?
It all goes back to the doctrine of sin, the foundation stone of the Christian dogmatic system. My own theological teacher, John Dickie, regarded by conservatives in his day as a dangerous liberal, wrote in 1930 on the first page of his magnum opus (our text-book), “If there is no alienation between God and man, man has no need of a Saviour and historical Christianity is a mere illusion?.”… Indeed Rudolph Bultmann, arguably the greatest New Testament scholar of the 20th century, concluded that we know practically nothing for certain about Jesus except that he was crucified. Yet he believed that does not really matter. What remained important for Bultmann was what he called the kerygma, the preached or proclaimed message about Jesus. Yet he conceded that even that had to be demythologised, by which he meant reinterpreted into today’s cultural “non-mythological” or “non-supernatural? context.”
– Lloyd Geering
I know that many of the examples provided are not from Catholic sources. If you are looking for a decidedly Catholic academic position in this debate, let me introduce you to Stephen Finlan, Ph.D. Stephen has written a book Problems with Atonement that you can read to get a better understanding of why substitutionary atonement must go. There is a blurb on the book cover from Robert J. Daly, S.J., who is Professor Emeritus of Theology from Boston College.
“This is the most helpful book on the atonement to appear in modern times. While the Incarnation is an essential Christian idea, the atonement is not. Finlan suggests that we look to the doctrine of theosis as more true to the implications of the Incarnation”
– Robert J. Daly, S.J.
I know what you are thinking, the doctrine of theosis… ZZZZZZzzzzzz…
In all honesty, this book is a tough read unless you are really into theology, for example; an academic theologian. You will not find a Catholic perspective on removing atonement theology broken down into layman’s terms. If any leader in the Catholic Church were to stand up and say that we should get rid of atonement they would be censured immediately. This is why I have brought this debate to you. It is important and you need to know.
Stay tuned to this blog for more information on this topic, and many more like it.