19 April 2007

Atonement, Justice and Reciprocity

I am currently reading Stephen Sykes' book: The Story of Atonement. There has also been some discussion on Christian discussion groups and in the Christian blogsphere about theories of atonement on the back of Jeffrey John's Lent Talk on BBC Radio 4.

John talked about growing up being told the following about 'how God saves sinners'. I'll bet you'll recognise the idea. I know that I was told that this is precisely what salvation is all about. John was taught that:

God was very angry with us for our sins, and because he is a just God, our sin had to be punished. But instead of punishing us he sent his Son, Jesus, as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. The blood of Jesus paid the price of our sins, and because of him God stopped being angry with us. In other words, Jesus took the rap, and we got forgiven, provided we said we believed in him.

In his book, The Story of Atonement, Sykes talks about how much of popular Christian theology is based on the idea of reciprocity - and on the idea that justice is reciprocity. So, the idea is that if I do something good, God will/should reward me with something good and when you do something bad, God should punish you. When this does not happen, we become outraged. Hence the idea that many people express "What have I done to deserve this tragedy?" or "I cannot believe in a God who would let such bad things happen."

Sykes points out that this idea of reciprocity is NOT part of Christian tradition; Christians do not believe that God rewards good behaviour with good things and bad behaviour with bad things. On the contrary, Christians believe that there is nothing that we can do that is 'good enough' to gain our salvation or other rewards from God and therefore we have to rely on the grace of God. 'Reward for good behaviour' may be hard-wired into the human psyche (as any parent of a two-year-old will tell you), but it is not a Christian idea.

Grace, the popular saying goes, means getting something good that you don't deserve. Well, amen to that.

But where does that grace come from? I think we get into trouble when we start saying that God's 'justice' means that he is not capable of being gracious until he has received some kind of payment. In the event of God receiving a payment, grace is not grace but is rather a quid pro quo reward for good behaviour. It makes reciprocity more important than grace.

But the worst thing about these popular versions of salvation is that they turn Christianity into just another system of those who are in with the in-group and those who are out. There is a reason that the Christian church orginally called itself 'catholic' (which just means 'universal'); because Christianity is not about defining which categories of people are not offered the grace of God. Christianity is about God's universal offer of grace to all people.

We are always in debt to God. There is no system of reciprocity involved in our relationship with God. God does not 'reward' us for believing in him and punish other people for not believing in him. The whole point of Christianity is that the love of God is a free gift.

To quote Sykes, faith is not something that we do; faith is a being present when a revelation takes place. By faith, we enter a realm of the mutuality of love through grace; by faith we are the recipients of unimaginable generosity.

[Edited on 21/4/07 to correct the spelling of Jeffrey John's surname as pointed out to me by Peter Kirk in the 'Commments' section.]


Sally said...

goodness there is a lot in these few words "faith is a being present when a revelation takes place"- trying to be present, trying to unpack what that means!

Turbulent Cleric said...

Thanks for that. I found it very helpful and I will read it again a little more slowly when I return from my brief away trip

PamBG said...
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PamBG said...

tc, I'm glad you found it helpful; I wasn't sure I was making sense!

Sally, yes, indeed there is a lot in that sentence! I've found some of the things that Sykes has had to say about faith very helpful. I have thought for a long time that "decision theology" does make faith a sort of "work". I suspect that, in some sense faith is a mystery.

It's interesting that in the wake of the discussion on the Johns talk, we've heard all sorts of protests from the evangelical side of Christianity, but Skyes is the former Principal of St. John's College Durham and, according to what I make of this book, would not disagree with anything that Johns said.

At the end of the day, I firmly believe that the great revelation of the Christian faith is that God loves everyone and wants everyone to be his child. I suspect that what actually keeps us away from God's Kingdom isn't that we are such recalictrant sinners, but that we don't like the idea of other sinners getting a free ride.

Christian theology seems to spend a lot of time worrying about how God deals with people with narcissistic personality disorders when I think that most people simply want to be loved and forgiven.

My impression is that, in Methodism, it is less of a "sin" to say "God loves everyone" than in other denominations. And in that heritage, I rejoice.

Peter Kirk said...

Pam, thank you for this. I have commented on it favourably on my own blog.

You asked in a comment there what my points of disagreement with you are. It comes when you seem to put forward a universalist position in which there is no distinction between the church and the world. I agree that "Christianity is about God's universal offer of grace to all people." But you seem to infer from this that all people are part of the 'catholic' church, that there is no in-group.

I would consider that there is an in-group, but a self-selected one, of those who accept God's universal offer, and sadly excluding those who have never heard this offer because of human failure to tell others about it. Indeed some people have been unhelpful by teaching that the boundaries of the church are rigid, fixed and predestined. But if we over-react by denying that there are any boundaries to the church, we end up losing any distinctiveness and simply become a religious club which most people consider irrelevant.

By the way, it is not "Jeffrey Johns" but "Jeffrey John".

PamBG said...

Peter - Interesting comments, thank you.

I think that God's offer of salvation is to everyone. Because I believe in free will, I have to believe that we can choose to put ourselves outside of the Kingdom of God. But I think that's a choice that we make and not God.

I think that "religion" as the world would see it is about designating certain people as being outside the possibility of God's grace. And we all do it, even fuzzy Methodists.

I'm not particularly keen on naming who is outside the Kingdom as I don't know what use that is to anyone. Unlike Dave Warnock, I don't actually consider myself to be "evangelical", so I'm not sure how much of an oar I have in that particular stream.

PamBG said...

Apologies for getting Jeffrey John's name incorrect. I will change the post with due acknowledgement.