Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Meet Christian Ethics

In preparation for my seminar on the connection between atonement and ethics, I perused Stephen Long's Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2010). It is one of the many "Very Short Introductions" offered by the OUP on topics ranging from Advertising to Fractals to Neoliberalism to Writing and Script. The pocket-sized book boasts only 135 pages, including notes and index; its clear brevity is a literary achievement in itself.

Long's work produces a useful balance between the theological foundations of Christian ethics and the practical issues to which such ethics applies. It does so without slipping into obscure theological or philosophical rabbit-trails. It also deftly handles the separate parts of the compound term "Christian ethics" so as to clarify the field in view. Long's writing is lucid, engaging, at times humorous (though in 135 pages there is precious little space to be spared for wit), and as complete as a "very short" introduction can be. The book spans the spectra of denominations and epochs from the early Church to the postmodern period, marking the full height and breadth of traditions.

For someone who seeks to begin a library of perspectives on Christian ethics (or even ethics in general), Long's book is the perfect place to start. In (very) short, this tiny tome is quite good.

~ emrys

The Fullness of Calvin

Following the recommendation of a wise friend, I dug into Bruce Gordon's 2009 biography: Calvin. Though dense with the fullness of academic rigor, Gordon's exploration of the life of the Genevan reformer moved with enough speed and direction to keep my interest. (Gordon even managed to slip in periodic references to the works of Tolkien, betraying either a personal hobby or perhaps a bet made with a student.)

Much more faithful to chronology than Selderhuis' text, Gordon avoided the danger of a wooden timeline by astute attention to the rich complexity of Calvin, his actions, and his circumstances. Calvin successfully connects essential components of the reformer's doctrines (like election, predestination, and the Lord's Supper) to the history and relationships in the sixteenth-century Church without digressing too far into historical theology.

Like Selderhuis, Gordon presents an honest balance between both the clear achievements and personal imperfections of the man John Calvin. He uses not only Calvin's own writings but also both the works of his contemporaries and other historians' efforts to shed a wide light on Geneva's prime churchman. The breadth of research for Calvin predestined the book to be a long read. But I found it well worth the patience it requires of the student who wants to appreciate the intricacies of the Protestant Reformation.

Much of the last quarter of the book showed me something I had not attended before: the significant impact Calvin desired to have--and to great extent did have--on the Protestant movement in France. Though Calvin's own writings can be interpreted equivocally regarding his desire for personal involvement in France, the evidence that Gordon brings forth reveals Calvin's prominent place in a great gospel tide surging from the Bernese and Genevan highlands to breadth of his homeland. Would that all we Christians could be so devoted both to Christ's kingdom in our own communities and also to its spread further into the world.

~ emrys

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Can We Have Too Much Atonement?

The next book in my research is A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight (2007). The title and the blurb online enticed me with the promise that the text would bring together matters of atonement and ethics in Christian theology--the precise topic of my seminar at the end of this month.

A Community Called Atonement attempts to build an understanding of atonement that moves beyond the simplicity of penal substitution which has gripped the thinking and preaching of much of the last fifty years of Evangelical Christianity. Using the metaphor of a bag of golf clubs, McKnight builds an argument that in order to play the full game of atonement, one must have more than just a driver or a putter. One's atonement theory must include more than a narrow forensic view of Jesus' death on the cross. It must include Christus victor, recapitulation, and part of the exemplar theories of atonement. In this, McKnight approaches the view called "Kaleidoscopic" in Joel Green's part of Atonement: Four Views (see earlier post).

What is even more tantalizing is McKnight's attempt to bring ethics into atonement. He argues that an atonement theory is incomplete unless it includes "missional praxis" in the form of fellowship, justice, mission, scripture, baptism, eucharist, and prayer. In what increasingly seemed to be a reaction to decades of "four spiritual laws" theology, McKnight's book brought every theological, ecclesial, and ethical facet of the Christian life into the "golf bag" of atonement. It seemed to me, by the end of a work that functioned more like a systemic theology than topical study, McKnight's atonement could be identified with just about any piece of Christian theology. Fellowship exists in the Church "for atonement"; "Scripture plays an atoning role in the life of the church"; and "the Lord's Supper is a praxis of atonement."

It sounds beautiful and poetic to make every aspect of Christianity a part of God's mysterious work we call atonement. As many authors have shown, describing atonement as a mechanism or event out of which the rest of Christianity flows presents difficulties of logic, metaphor, and language. But McKnight's approach to avoiding the classic difficulties by expanding the definition of atonement results only in a neologism for atonement that contains too much stuff to be meaningful. There's no use in talking about atonement if atonement can refer to anything at all.

Yes, atonement should be the font of the Christian life. God's reconciling us to the divine is central to the good news of Jesus Christ. I agree that if justice, fellowship, mission, and all the marks of the Church do not flow from us, then we probably have not grasped atonement. But saying that many things result from atonement is not the same as saying that atonement includes those many things in itself.

The only place where McKnight offers useful precision is in his attempt to describe the "bag" that carries all his "atonement clubs." He chooses a modification of the recapitulation theory, calling it "identification for incorporation." God taking on flesh in Christ ("identification") leads to our being "in Christ" through faith ("incorporation"). I would have appreciated more expansion of this new term. Without that expansion, I am left to suspect that it does not differ much from the recapitulation theories of Irenaeus and Athanasius, to which McKnight enthusiastically directs our attention.

Despite its limited usefulness in describing a precise theory of atonement, A Community Called Atonement reminds us, with erudite zeal, that atonement is not a legal fiction for the comfort of the individual believer. Atonement, rightly understood, opens the door to transformation of the individual, the Church, and society into the image of God. May it be so for us!

~ emrys

Dad's Long Drive

When my brother and I were young, in the early 1980s, we took a few family vacations to Chincoteague, Virginia. There we would inhabit a little cottage for a few days, go crabbing off the community pier, and find all the trouble for which two young boys search.

As a surgeon, Dad was often on call, which meant that at any time of day or night he could be called in to the Emergency Room or the Operating Room for a case. But even physicians get to take real, honest-to-goodness vacations, by getting one of their colleagues to cover on-call duty while they're gone. During our trips to Chincoteague Dad was covered by his fellow physicians.

On one occasion, however, even having coverage did not allow Dad to escape the duties of medicine. While we were in Virginia, one of his patients fell into a state in which emergency surgery was necessary. This patient refused the procedure if Dad wasn't the one doing the operation. So the hospital got hold of Dad, three states away, and he made the drive back to Bethlehem. As he told the story later, Dad drove 80 mph the whole way home, hoping and praying for a police car to pull him over so that he could get an escort. (Dad never intentionally drove over the speed limit, which at the time was 55 mph.) Of course, on that trip home, not an officer was to be found on the highway between Chincoteague and Bethlehem.

Those were the days when Dad was driving the brown Datsun station wagon (remember station wagons?), the boxy precursor to the boxy Nissan models. I remember kids at school calling them "rice-grinders," as a derogatory epithet. But that year the little Datsun made it back and forth to Chincoteague twice without a hitch (or an escort), and lasted several years more, to boot.

~ emrys

Friday, July 04, 2014

Atonement: How You Look At It

In preparation for a seminar course I'm teaching at the end of this month, I recently read The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, edited by James Beilby and Paul Eddy (2006). This piece of IVP Academic's Spectrum Multiview series performs a wonderful service to readers seeking insight into multiple facets of atonement theory: It publishes four authors' perspectives on atonement, along with responses from the remaining three authors to each author's position. The book as a whole, then, constitutes a conversation between points of view.

I appreciated that the four views on atonement (penal substitution, Christus victor, healing, and kaleidoscopic) came from contemporary scholars describing their personal positions rather than offering historical surveys of atonement theories. The latter have their place (my hat is off to John Thompson, among others, who helped me to understand the significance of past generations' theologies), but I find arguments written for the present decade more engaging and more helpful in my search for clarity.

Atonement is one of the Gordian knots of Christian theology. The spectrum of imagery and logic used in the scriptures to elucidate how God and humanity are reconciled does not lend the topic to simple explanation. For a faith that seeks understanding, the atonement is an awfully elusive goose to chase.

Four Views offers a piercing analysis of four perspectives on the atonement. All four authors take the scriptures as the authoritative starting point; all four end up at different (though not entirely exclusive) positions. I received great illumination from the substitution, Christus victor, and kaleidoscopic perspectives; all three helped to enrich my own ruminations on the atonement. The healing view did not seem to me a cogent argument on par with the other three. I left that part of the discussion wondering why the editors did not choose a more classic view (such as recapitulation or exemplar). Of the other three however, each had very strong points for itself and could offer important criticisms of the others, which interaction helped me to learn what questions one must ask of an atonement theory to see if it is worth its salt.

It is rare that I read a scholarly piece in which the author has occasion to address another author directly. So I took some amusement from watching the rules of etiquette play out on the page. In his response to the other authors (all were male), each author offered a paragraph or two of affirmations about his colleague's work, then proceeded to poke a series of potentially lethal holes in his argument. There must be a scholarly Geneva Convention for how to criticize another scholar's writing.

Taken as a whole: an enlightening and helpful read. I recommend it to anyone interested in diving into the mystery of how Christ reconciles us to God.

~ emrys