Trinity, Atonement, and the Coherence of Doctrine

Years before I found Christianity believable (or truly understood what there was to believe), I found its coherence as an intellectual system immensely satisfying. Now too, the more I learn, the more I appreciate how its core concepts are inseparably entwined. Take away the Resurrection, for instance, and the Crucifixion goes from triumph to tragedy. However much disbelievers in miracles try to recast Jesus’ death as an inspiring martyrdom, if the story ends there, it really isn’t all that inspiring — just another tale of how good guys finish last.
Similarly, Bryan at Creedal Christian points out in a recent post that the doctrine of the Atonement would seem barbaric without the Trinity. The objection is commonly heard, “What kind of father would be so wrathful that he could only be appeased by the death of his son?” Isn’t that the essence of human sinfulness, after all — that there must be a doer and a done-to, a consuming ego and a devoured other? That power struggle vanishes only when we see that the two characters in this drama are really one:

God sending the Son to suffer and die on the cross can only be construed as sado-masochistic if – as Arius taught – the Son is less than the Father. But if, as the Nicene Creed affirms, the Father and Son are one, then Jesus’ willing submission to the cross is not a concession to the Father’s vicious will. Rather, the Divine will is ONE will – a loving, redemptive will for Jesus’ death to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.

When we see Jesus’ voluntary submission to the cross, we see God’s will for the redemption of the world unfolding. We see the reason why Jesus was born.

Both liberal-modernists who deny the divinity of Christ, and Calvinists who fixate on God’s naked power to the exclusion of His love for humanity, have at times obscured the Trinitarian paradox that works through our sinful structures of abuse and domination in order to delegitimize them once and for all. Catholic theologian James Alison eloquently argues this point in his 2004 lecture “Some Thoughts on the Atonement”:

[N]ormally, in the theory understanding of substitutionary atonement, we understand the substitution to work as follows: God was angry with humanity; Jesus says, “Here am I”; God needed to loose a lightning rod, so Jesus said, “You can loose it on me”, substituting himself for us. Boom: lightning rod here: sacrifice: God happy. “Got my blood-lust out of the way!”

The interesting thing is that it worked in an entirely different way: what Jesus was doing was substitute himself for a series of substitutions. The human sacrificial system typically works in the following way: the most primitive forms of sacrifice are human sacrifices. After people begin to become aware of what they are doing this gets transferred to animal sacrifices. After all it’s easier to sacrifice animals because they don’t fight back so much; whereas if you have to run a sacrificial system that requires you to keep getting victims, usually you have to run a war machine in order to provide enough victims to keep the system going; or you have to keep the pet “pharmakons” around the place – convenient people to sacrifice, who live in splendour, and have a thoroughly good time, until a time of crisis when you need people to sacrifice, and then you sacrifice them. But this is an ugly thing, and people are, after all, human; and so animals began to be sacrificed instead. And in some cultures from animals you get to more symbolic forms of sacrifice, like bread and wine. You can find any variation on the theme of sacrificial substitution.

The interesting thing is that Jesus takes exactly the inverse route; and he explains to us that he is going in the inverse route. “The night before he was betrayed…” what did he do? He said, “Instead of the bread and the wine, this is the lamb, and the lamb is a human being.” In other words he substituted a human being back into the centre of the sacrificial system as the priest, thus showing what the sacrificial system was really about, and so bringing it to an end.

So you do have a genuine substitution that is quite proper within the atonement theory. All sacrificial systems are substitutionary; but what we have with Jesus is an exact inversion of the sacrificial system: him going backwards and occupying the space so as to make it clear that this is simply murder. And it needn’t be. That is what we begin to get in St John’s Gospel: a realisation that what Jesus was doing was actually revealing the mendacious principle of the world. The way human structure is kept going is by us killing each other, convincing ourselves of our right to do it, and therefore building ourselves us up over and against our victims. What Jesus understands himself as doing in St John’s Gospel is revealing the way that mechanism works. And by revealing it, depriving it of all power by seeing it as a lie: “your father was a liar and a murderer from the beginning”. That is how the “prince” – or principle – of this world works.

So what we get in St John’s Gospel is a clear understanding that the undoing of victimage is not simply a liturgical matter, it’s not simply a liturgical fulfilment, but is the substituting himself at the centre of what the liturgical thing was covering up, namely human sacrifice, therefore making it possible for us to begin to live without sacrifice. And that includes not just liturgical sacrifice, but therefore the human mechanism of sacrificing other people so that we can keep ourselves going. In other words, what he was beginning to make possible was for us to begin to live as if death were not, and therefore for us not to have to protect ourselves over against it by making sure we tread on other people.

Read the whole lecture here.

2 comments on “Trinity, Atonement, and the Coherence of Doctrine

  1. Bryan says:

    Great post, Jendi.

    James Allison’s reflections seem to me to be in synch with the writings of Rene Girard on how Jesus’ sacrifical death puts an end to the violence of blood sacrifices. In the wake of Jesus’ free offering of himself on the cross in love for the whole world, there are no justifiable scapegoats, whether they be animals or human beings.

    I think that the Eucharistic Prayer of Rite I makes this point in strong language:

    “All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world …” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 334).

    A “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice.”

    It’s over in Jesus. Nothing more is required. Indeed, requiring anything more would mean disrespecting the fullness, perfection, and sufficiency of what Jesus has already done.

    And why did it happen this way? Why did Jesus suffer as he did on the cross?

    Not to satisfy God’s vindictive bloodlust.

    Quite the contrary.

    According to Rite I, Jesus freely offered himself in obedience to God’s will because of God’s “tender mercy.”

    Tender mercy.

    I know that some folks really don’t like Rite I. They think it’s too penitential and that it’s morbid.

    But I find the kind of language it uses to describe Jesus’ death extraordinarily moving.

    Thanks also for plugging my piece – although I think that commentator bls deserves some credit for bringing out the way in which the doctrine of the Trinity undermines the barbaric reading of the atonement.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    Yes, I’ve read that Alison was greatly influenced by Girard (whom I haven’t read, but am interested in now!). As for Rite I, I’ve come to realize that the Bible and the liturgy contain emotional extremes in order to encompass the whole of life. I too was initially turned off to hard-core penitential language till I found myself actually feeling that way one day. Same for the rejoicings and cursings in the Psalms. The point, I guess, is not to feel obligated to work one’s self up into artificially intense emotions, but to know that whatever happens, there’s something in there that will speak to your situation.

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