Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement: Is God Violent? (Part 5)

This important question (posed here on the cover of Sojourners magazine) is at the center of debates about the nonviolent atonement.

Atonement has been the topic du jour this week at The Search for Piety and Obedience. We’ve been gearing up for tomorrow’s conference, “Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement,” hosted by the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College. Our various posts have offered some preliminary thoughts on a variety of complex themes, each of which will be explored in greater detail at tomorrow’s event.

On Monday, we got our bearings on the conference by learning about the presenters and their approaches to the notion of atonement.

On Tuesday, we asked (and tried to answer) the question, “What is atonement?

On Wednesday, we offered a brief (but by no means comprehensive) outline of the historical Brethren in Christ perspectives on the atonement.

Yesterday, we broached a controversial theme in atonement studies: the nonviolent atonement. Although I haven’t read the books on this topic, I ended yesterday’s post on a positive note by stating my appreciation of nonviolent atonement theory’s focus on Christ’s life and death, rather than just his death.

Today, we finish up our five-day series by debating the utility and biblical rootedness of the nonviolent atonement theory. We’ll conclude with a question: “Is God violent?”

We’ll begin by returning to the review I briefly quoted yesterday, from theologian Telford Work. Here’s his critique of the nonviolent atonement (as proposed by Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver in The Nonviolent Atonement):

Weaver’s denials of all divine violence (widely defined to include racism, sexism, poverty, psychological harm, and even damage to self-esteem) are less convincing. He works from the assumption that Christology and atonement must reject violence, substitutionary or not (7). This causes him to ignore critical themes in both the Old and New Testaments. One senses that God not only refuses to punish Jesus, but refuses to punish anyone (225). All human suffering from sin seems self-inflicted (221). Is this the same heavenly father Jesus likens to a king who tortures the unforgiving (Matt 18:34-35)? Just because the Law (and Gospel) have been twisted to curse innocents does not mean that they never justly curse the guilty.

Brethren in Christ author Eric Seibert's book "Disturbing Divine Behavior" wrestles with the idea of God and violence.

Work’s critique places the debate about the nature of the atonement into a larger debate currently raging in Christian theology about the nature of God. The central question in this debate might be asked thusly: “Can a truly holy God use a phenomenon as truly unholy as violence to accomplish divine purposes?” It seems to me that advocates for both “yes” and “no” answers could find support in the Scriptures.

This question has cropped up with increasing celerity in recent years. (Even some Brethren in Christ author-scholars have tackled it. And one of my pastors just gave a sermon on it.) It’s one component of the controversy surrounding megachurch pastor Rob Bell. And it’s the subject of a forthcoming book from popular megachurch pastor and neo-Anabaptist Greg Boyd (who, as I argued recently, is increasingly popular in some Brethren in Christ circles today).

We’re certainly not going to resolve the question here, in this tiny blog post. But I think it’s an important question for Brethren in Christ folks — people who take seriously the notion of a peace witness — to consider.

In closing, I’ll offer some words from Mennonite professor Darrin W. Snyder Belousek, in his response to Weaver’s idea of nonviolent atonement:

Weaver’s theological approach would have us make a choice: either accept the orthodox doctrine of God and the whole of Scripture, or be a peace church. Is such a choice necessary? No. Can we affirm the fullness of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and embrace the fullness of Scripture as revelation of God and maintain a robust peace ethic? Yes.

The key is to acknowledge God’s sovereign prerogative: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35). Only God has right to take vengeance, not us; and God is free to exercise that prerogative as God chooses, whether violently or nonviolently. Far from contradicting a peace ethic, affirming that vengeance belongs to God is the faith that grounds Paul’s teaching that we are to live peaceably, renounce retribution, love enemies, and overcome evil with good (Romans 12:14-21). As Willard Swartley has written, “the rationale for constraint in the human role to combat evil is based in God’s right to vengeance and judgment” (Covenant of Peace, Eerdmans 2006).

Read Snyder Belousek‘s entire response here.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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One Response to Exploring the Meaning of the Atonement: Is God Violent? (Part 5)

  1. Elaine Reed says:

    This has been an interesting discussion, especially in light of the Anabaptist tradition. I hope you will share some of the highlights of Saturday’s conference.

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