Dear David Canon: Atonement theories have never fed the poor.

Dear David Canon,

First off, thank you for your kind words.  While it is self-evident that I am the most wonderful of all the Gonzagas here at Fuller, it is always nice to be reminded.

Second, I apologize for starting this conversation several days before I had to bury myself in the library to finish final papers and finals. I would have responded to you sooner had this not been the case.

Third, I wanted to clarify some points and respond to some of your question.

In regards to the issue of experience influencing one’s practical theology…

You wrote, “…I don’t believe that experience should be the most formative element of a person’s ‘practical theology.’…”

I am not saying that a person’s experience should inform their theology more than any teaching. I am suggesting one’s experience inherently does regardless of if we want it to or not.

I think it is impossible to completely divorce our experiences in this life from our practical theology. At the very least it has been impossible for me.  This came up at the recent Hauerwas lecture where a student asked him how his experience (of being married to a mentally ill woman for many years) impacted his theology.  Haurewas was perturbed by this question, as were many seminarians who “got” his Barthian theology, because Haurweas believes that one’s theology should not be formed by one’s experience.  To him, and other the question was not applicable.

On one hand I agree with this notion.  The theology revealed in scripture does not change with our experiences in this life. As such, orthodox Christian theology that all Christians should seek to bring their practical theology in line with does not change.  Ever. Our experience does not change what is written in the Bible.

However, I think separating our practical theology from our experience is impossible.  While my experience in this life does not change what is written in scripture it will highly impact how I understand it, what scriptures I give weight, or if I even belief what Scriptures says. I have not met any titans of faith, who like Job, after major tragedy simply say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away…blessed by the name of the Lord,” presumably showing that despite the circumstances of his life changing God was exactly the same and worthy of praise.  Most people question the God of revelation through their experience in this world, and in terms of forming one’s practical theology I think the latter often wins out.

To be clear I am not saying this should be the case, I am suggesting this is the case regardless of if we want it to be or not.

Think about it. If a friend constantly said, “I am trustworthy” but kept breaking their promises eventually you would stop believing them. I have been, and I have encountered many people, who say they ascribe to some virtue but live completely differently. In this we are judged as hypocrites regardless of our statements.  If revelation declares that God loves us, cares for us, answers prayer, etc. and yet we experience a God who appears indifferent or even against us, unconcerned with our plight, and silent in response to prayer, is it reasonable to think that one’s practical theology will stay in line with the teaching of revelation?  I think not.

On the Bible teaching theology…

“Christian theology in its purest form, I think, is simply making sense of the theology in the Bible. Contrary to what some people think, the Bible actually teaches theology…”

I would agree.  Revelation provides what God says about God and for Christians this means this is how we are to understand God.

On settling theological differences…

You wrote, “Theology is not settled in the way you imply.”

I am curious, what did you think I was implying?

On using good theology to correct bad theology…

“Lots of people believe bad theology! What a terrible situation, Kevin. There’s quite a lot at stake here. But what better weapon do we have against bad theology other than good theology, founded on scripture and informed by tradition and communal discernment?”

On one hand I agree with you.  Much of what I have written could be termed “theology” and I do believe that in some cases people’s practical beliefs must be brought in line with good teaching…that in turn comes from theology that is, “founded on scripture and informed by tradition and communal discernment.” This seems especially true with new believers who are unfamiliar with basic Christian beliefs.  To use a whimsical example, if a Christian came to believe they were a previously unknown fourth person in the Trinity, they would need to be taught the error of their ways from scripture and tradition.  And again, the only way to understand scripture and tradition is to in some way engage in theology.

However, I would suggest this is often not enough to bring one’s practical theology in line with orthodox Christian theology revealed in the Bible. If someone suffers a painful tragedy and comes to believe that God is not good, we cannot simply point them to verses that talk about God being loving or near the brokenhearted.  I personally would want to really search out how people got to their practical theologies that were so different from what is made plain in scripture and Church tradition and come along side them as they wrestle with their experience.

To use an example of what I am talking about…how many Protestants would profess with their mouth that their works do nothing to contribute to their salvation, but then turn around and work thinking their Christian behavior directly controls God’s attitude towards them and consequently compulsively engage in ministry as a result? How many Protestants approach devotional time as a work, thinking if they do it for one hour a day they are close to God and He love them, and when they forget or fail to set aside time for the Lord, God is mad at them? For how many of our peers at Fuller is this true?  The answer lies not just in teaching them justification by faith…again…which they may already believe in…but exploring how they got to this practical theology in the first place.

On the nature of schism…

You wrote, “…We must humbly and selflessly bring theology to bear against bad theology (whether it be too obsure, etc.) which begets schism, bitterness, and sin in the church!”

I do not think “bad theology” causes schisms because this is just a contextual label that means nothing.  “Bad theology” versus “Good theology” often coined by the victors and used by one theological camp to label an opposed theological camp. One cannot say “bad theology” causes schisms because one camp’s bad theology is another camp’s deeply cherished orthodoxy.

I have argued previously that obscure theology is the source of schisms.  On further reflection I have come to realize that I believe that it is truly how we handle competing views on what the Bible says about a given doctrine that is the source of schisms.  Rarely have Christians approached maintaining orthodoxy in humility and sometimes one is called to fight against false teachers.  Jesus, Paul, and others are not so meek and mild when confronting false teachers and false teachings, however I fear that often systematic theologies become a list of “right beliefs” that are used more to exclude outsiders than they are to maintain orthodoxy. During the Reformation everyone seemed quite comfortable with executing heretics, meaning people who did not share their systematic theologies, even though there was widespread consensus on a lot of the basics of the faith.  Burning people alive at the stake was not exactly correcting “bad theology” with “good theology.”

Systematic theologies, concerned with many things beyond the basics of the faith, often become a means by which we learn who is not “one of us.” In this systematic theologies just become a new set of purity laws by which one knows whom to welcome and whom to condemn, exclude and hate. But I am moving too far into my next answer so let’s move forward…

On the nature of my claim that theology is useless…

“So why say ‘theology is useless’ if you agree that Jesus and the apostles teach theology, and that we should affirm the creeds? That’s a rather sweeping statement, and I suppose that you were going for edginess. Why not say ‘bad theology is destructive’ or ‘theology is useless if its distant from or warps scripture and tradition,’ or something of the sort. Why the edgy, Kevin?”

From my initial post I created divisions between practical theology, declared theology, orthodox theology, and obscure theology for a reason.  I think the last is the theology that is useless.  If you ignore these categories, you ignore my whole argument.

To reiterate: I do not think all theology is useless, I think obscure theology is useless if not detrimental. I think people’s practical theology is important because that is what motivates their life.  I think declared theology is important in that it is what they teach and espouse to others.  I think orthodox theology in scriptures is important because it is the theology we are supposed to declare and live from.

However, I absolutely detest, loathe and hate obscure theology. Obscure theology is theology that is usually extrapolated from a small section of verses in the Bible, such theologies really serve no function in this world, change no one’s faith, do not change how anyone lives in this world, do not help anyone.

To use an example let’s take atonement theories. I am about to in respond to another post and engage in a discussion regarding atonement theories.  There is support for a variety of understandings regarding exactly how atonement works.  But regardless of which answer is “right” (or if there is even a “right” understanding of the atonement) no atonement theory really changes anything.  Neither Christus victor nor penal substitution has ever put food in the mouths of the hungry or motivated anyone I know of to take action in this world.  Neither satisfaction nor divine love have comforted the bereaved or motivated anyone I know to comfort the bereaved.  Furthermore, the whole discussion of atonement theories completely misses if not obscures the point.  In pondering the “how” of salvation we miss the Who in salvation.  I think the real issues at stake is “Is forgiveness and salvation possible, and if so by what or whom is it gained?”

While obscure theologies serve no purpose and are as such a complete waste of time, resources, education, and effort, they sadly do not often remain neutral. Many obscure theologyes are promoted as central to the Gospel and/or become part of a larger set of doctrines to divide the Bride of Christ into warring factions.

To use another example, the addition of the filioque clause in the Creeds by a non-ecumenical council in Toledo was discovered and several hundred years later was one of the reasons the Eastern and Western Churches split.  The belief that the Holy Spirit came from God the Father or both God the Father and Jesus the Son, was one of the reasons the Eastern Orthodox Church went its own way.  This is a complete tragedy in my opinion.  I do not think single or double procession actually changes anyone’s faith, feeds the poor, or clothes the naked but the debate over single or double procession provided theological grounds for a monumental schism of the Church several centuries before the Reformation.

I refer to it as obscure theology because the labels of “bad” and “good” are too contextual (as I have previously argued) and obscure theology might be in one tradition a core tenant and could hardly be called something too distant from scripture or tradition.

More to the reason I am so adamant about this issue is that I fear that much of what is engaged in in our own context would fall under this category.  In the Library I regularly see loads of dissertations and in my own research have seen literally hundreds of books and writings from past and current Fuller graduates and things that are being and have been used to educate Fuller students.  Much of this I fear fails to ever have any application or implication for how Christians live in this world.  Is this how we should be spending our time?  Should we be discussing the beliefs of dead Europeans had regarding half merits and full merits when the world is on fire with pain ans suffering and our Churches appear to be in an appalling state of apostasy?  How many of our peers pursue obscure theology to attain a degree so that they can eventually teach other students the same? I fear that many of our graduate programs at Fuller are essentially perpetual motion machines that are based on and produce an unending amount of obscure theology. Have we just created a system that fails to ever connect with the real world beyond the limits of our own microcosm?

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About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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3 Responses to Dear David Canon: Atonement theories have never fed the poor.

  1. Kevin – funnily enough I have asserted that exactly this piece of “obscure theology” has had an effect on the behavior of the Church of the West. I think I already linked to an essay on atonement theology so I won’t keep pimping my blog here but I will quote:

    “Is it possible that the Church in the West has selected Penal Substitution as the primary means of understanding the atonement precisely because it does lack an ethical dimension? Jesus came to preach the Kingdom of God the synoptic Gospels agree, and yet western Churches and western theology sees the Kingdom and discipleship as an optional add-on (at best) to the core message of Salvation (always understood in a juridical sense). Salvation as a legal transaction does allow us to do away with or render optional ecclesiology, discipleship, and ethics. But for the purposes of much of the Church this has been a feature, not a bug, which allows a Christianity neutered down to become a private transaction which need not affect the present.

    Phrased like that it seems to me that a primary task of recovering the New Testament vision of the Christian life is to reject with prejudice exclusive claims for penal substitution and assert the diversity of Biblical language and atonement models (with all their implications for salvation).”

    • Kevin says:

      Simeon, your argument comes close to a Catholic critique of Luther and Calvin. When Luther argued vehemently for justification (and penal substitution) by faith Catholics were quick to suggest he was a libertine unconcerned with morality and ethics. However, this was a misread of Luther and an attempt to make him into a straw man. Reading Luther it was clear he was concerned with justification by faith and morality and ethics; while God did not need our good works our neighbor did. If this model of atonement “won out” in Protestantism in order to avoid ethics and morality it did so against the understanding, theology and hopes of many Reformers.

      While I guess it is theoretically possible that a lack of multiplicity in our models of atonement led to the lack of a concern for discipleship, ethics and the Kingdom in western Churches I think a far more likely culprit lies in other things.

      Most Westerners who would self-identify as Christians do so for the same reason that everyone from Turkey is Muslim and every Italian is a Catholic. It is a descriptor and label that may (or may not be) completely empty and devoid of any real conviction or faith. To be blunt, most Western Christians I have encountered have an incredibly low theology, follow a civil religion that is a caricature of the Gospel, are heavily syncretistic with Secular Humanism and many have simply grown “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” and unconcerned with the cause of the poor. I do not think changing around our atonement theologies and allowing for diversity will confront these deep seated issues in Western Christianity.

      • Simeon says:

        >Most Westerners who would self-identify as Christians do so for the same reason that everyone from Turkey is Muslim and every Italian is a Catholic. It is a descriptor and label that may (or may not be) completely empty and devoid of any real conviction or faith. To be blunt, most Western Christians I have encountered have an incredibly low theology, follow a civil religion that is a caricature of the Gospel, are heavily syncretistic with Secular Humanism and many have simply grown “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” and unconcerned with the cause of the poor. I do not think changing around our atonement theologies and allowing for diversity will confront these deep seated issues in Western Christianity.

        Kevin this part I agree with – and there’s no way to precisely trace the decline of faith in the west to a single source. And of course it is likely an interplay between a variety of factors that leads to the Church we see today. However! The Church does allow the presence of identity without faith, the flourishing of civil religion by presenting a gospel of “The Good News is that if you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior (by which we mean pray a prayer once when you are a little kid) you will go to heaven when you die.” This reductionistic Gospel seems to me to be dependent upon a purely forensic/penal substitutionary approach to atonement.

        As for Luther:

        >Simeon, your argument comes close to a Catholic critique of Luther and Calvin. When Luther argued vehemently for justification (and penal substitution) by faith Catholics were quick to suggest he was a libertine unconcerned with morality and ethics. However, this was a misread of Luther and an attempt to make him into a straw man. Reading Luther it was clear he was concerned with justification by faith and morality and ethics; while God did not need our good works our neighbor did. If this model of atonement “won out” in Protestantism in order to avoid ethics and morality it did so against the understanding, theology and hopes of many Reformers.

        You should totally read Gustaf Aulen who argues that Luther actually held the “Classic View” (Aulen’s reference to Christus Victor) and Melanchthon misunderstood and pushed for a purely Substitutionary Atonement view. I’m not very knowledgeable about Luther (aways seeing myself as more indebted to the left wing of the reformation) but was really interested in Aulen’s take on Luther.

        I have to say in regards to your larger point that I agree to a degree. I am very interested in theology but reject systematics as anything more than a convenient shorthand for conveying positions (eg: saying “I’m a Calvinist” conveys a great deal of information about a variety of theological topics). All magnificent attempts to thoroughly contextualise God and place Him within a framework from which we can reason are – I say this humbly – idolatry to the extent that they try to limit God to that which we can comprehend, sympathise with, etc. This is true whether you are Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, or Barth to name some of the most lucid thinkers. It also means that though I have decided opinions on many theological topics I believe in a generous Orthodoxy that extends the bounds of Christian brotherhood to my Catholic, Reformed, and Evangelical friends who are sincere believers within their framework.

        This does not mean that even obscure theology is wrong or unimportant. I do believe ideas make a difference and despite my own temptations along this line (I have often commented that I do not need to know more but rather should just do what I already know to be true) confess that different people, personalities, and gifts within the Body are distributed so that the Body may be complete in both action and intellect – even if the actions taken or the ideas studied do not seem to me to be the best, most important, etc.

        Is it just me or is Protestantism totally lacking monastic orders focused on action (eg Franciscans) to counter its academic impulses?

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