Why the Reformed Overemphasis on Substitutionary Atonement Falls Flat with Me.
To whatever degree my sins have needed to be atoned for, it is only in Christ that such atonement has been made available. I fully believe and affirm this. I’m just not so sure that this is the fullest picture of what has happened (see my previous post on the Wrath of God). My problem with substitutionary atonement is one of degree rather than kind.
I also struggle with the statement that sin has created a rift that has made it so that God cannot even look on us without a blood offering covering our trespasses (see my previous post Telling Better Stories).
Recently on his blog, writer extraordinaire Donald Miller talked about the power of stories and how listening to the wrong ones will completely screw you up (you should check his post out...go ahead, I’ll wait).
I love that he started his telling of the Story by saying, “The Trinity existed forever in a completely loving community.” When I was asked to write a paper on my theological center for ministry it was titled “God, the Community of Love” and began with the words:
Before the beginning there was Community. God, the Community of Love, which we refer to as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit had a perfect relationship of mutual love and respect. This isn’t to say that there were three gods - there is One God and this God is the essence of Love. Love does not exist and is not expressed in isolation, it is expressed in community. This God, this Community of Love was not incomplete, the Trinity was the definition of completion. Community needed nothing, Love lacked nothing. Love was eternally expressed within the Community of the One God in Three Persons.
While the Community of Love was not incomplete, neither is God static. The nature of True Community is expansive. It is dynamic. It is always growing and bringing into itself everything around it. The relationship of the Community, being rooted and established in a deep indescribable love, felt compelled to create. For that is what love is and what love does, it continually creates expansive opportunity for love to be expressed.
So God, the Community of Love created. God brushed away the darkness, stepped into the midst of chaos and brought forth solid foundations. God molded and formed an unbelievably expansive and expanding universe, and in an inconspicuous section of all that began to paint with beautiful strokes a landscape that was begging to be enjoyed...
Now, at the end of Miller’s blog post you’ll notice a postscript that speaks of white 20-something males whose parents are paying for their education...well, I can’t deny that he’s got me pegged on some of those descriptors (hopefully my monthly student loan payments give me some street cred here...). I don’t want to bash Miller; I’ve been following his tweets about A Million Miles and can’t wait to read it. I hate that I’ll be at SMU while he’s speaking at ACU’s Summit in September. Blue Like Jazz was great and Searching for God Knows What was even better. But he temporarily loses me when his story gets to the reason and function of Christ’s Incarnation.
I’ve always wondered how it is that God could create and declare “good” a universe which is not God (therefore less pure than God, the essence of purity) and be unable to be in the presence of something impure. Of course we immediately point to the Fall destroying creation’s purity. I’m going to leave off the discussion about just how perfect everything was pre-fall - was it realized or potential perfection? The Eastern Church Fathers and Mothers have some interesting thoughts on this subject.
Instead I’d like to point to God’s immediate response to the fall...he walks right up to Adam and Eve and asks what they have done. How is that possible? I thought God couldn’t be in the presence of sin? And from that point forward God continues to come near - long before the institution of the sacrificial system...which the prophets later tell us that God isn’t so interested in anyway.
Yes, the relationship is dreadfully damaged and the effects of sin are overwhelming. Of this there is little to debate. Humanity seems doomed for total destruction, a path which we remain incredibly gifted at following. But God continues to come into our midst. He sets up his tabernacle among the people and dwells with them. God enters our mess over and again.
Jesus’ incarnation is not the first time God has come near. It is the seminal event in that vein but not the first. And for that matter if Jesus is God and God can’t be around sin then what was Jesus doing here for 30-something years?
My critique here isn’t leveled at Miller, he is simply representing a telling of the story that has been around for a while (though contrary to what we may be told, it has not always been the dominant telling). I get it. This telling of the story has some attractiveness to it - it provides security and a way to explain the pain we see all around us. And it does so because it isn’t entirely untrue. But as the controlling metaphor it continues to fall flat.
I think one of the aspects that really keeps this view point muddled for me is the statement (again, this isn’t unique to Miller) that when God looks at us he sees Jesus.
I’m sorry but if that is true it is a devastating blow.
You see there are lots of people who look at me without seeing me. There are plenty of people who like or dislike me because when they look at me they see someone (or something) other than who (or what) I actually am. I don’t need a god who does the same thing. If my creator can't even look at me then what hope do I have? And if I find out that he's only pretending to love me and instead is able to fool me by pretending that I'm someone he DOES love...
Maybe everyone else is okay with it, but I need to know that God sees me for who I truly am and loves me anyway. I do not need to hear that until my transformation is complete this God is going to pretend I’m his Favorite Son so that he can stomach the sight of me.
And for the record, I believe that God is in the process of healing me of the sin and brokenness that I exhibit and even before this transformation is complete God loves THAT me. I believe that while everyone else sees me in bits and pieces, some bits accurate and some clouded by their own baggage or mine, God sees straight through to the core, the essence which he created. And I believe that this God, my Father, loves me more than I can possibly understand...already. I believe and pray that this transformation is into the image and likeness of the Favorite Son. But I don’t get lost in translation, I get healed, restored and remade. God doesn’t see Jesus, God sees me and we all rejoice as the family resemblance increases.
I don't think that the marriage and reunion with God will happen in some disembodied heaven in some distant future. I think that the reclaiming and remaking of creation (including myself) is already in process and I have, in a very real way, already received new life and reconciliation with God. I agree with Miller that things are not yet as they should be and it is because of Jesus that we have hope. But we aren't just sitting around waiting either. The Kingdom of God is at hand! This is the very gospel proclaimed by Jesus. We can begin to participate in this community and come alongside of God in God's ministry of reclaiming all things. It is about the future and it is also about the present.