Atonement Theory and Sacrifice

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Peter Leithart, in his recently released theological magnum opus, Delivered from the Elements of the World, says at the beginning of his book that any theology of the cross must make sense or be connected to the Levitical cultic sacrifices (among other things of course. Leithart mentions 5 criteria for a proper theology of atonement: evangelical, Levitical, Pauline, inevitable or necessary, and fruitful).

Leithart says this about Levitical atonement theology: “a successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events” (p 20).

The connection of the cross to sacrifice is of course apparent in NT letters such as Hebrews and the gospel narratives. But how exactly does the death of Christ “work” as a sacrifice? Peter Leithart takes up much of this book to bring to clarity the sacrificial death of Christ. First, he explains the purpose of the Levitical sacrifices:

[The] sacrificial system was designed to bring Israel near so that divine Husband and human Bride could feast together at the house of Yahweh. Yahweh accommodated himself to the post-Edenic, fleshly situation of Israel. Israelites themselves did not approach Yahweh but drew near through animal mediators, animals whose flesh was destroyed so that they could be transfigured and ascend, as the worshipper could not, in Yahweh’s presence. Israelite priests ate in the holy place but only under controlled conditions; Israelites could eat and drink and rejoice before the Lord, but only at a distance from his fiery presence. Israelites could not go past the cherubic swords and live. Israelites could not become fire to join themselves to Yahweh’s fire. But they could send animals past the cherubic swords, and Yahweh accepted the animals in place of the worshipers and Yahweh’s fire “consumed” the flesh of animals so that their flesh was turned to smoke and fire, “divinized” into union with Yahweh (p 138)

To make this explanation simple: the sacrifices were a sacramental means to accomplishing union with God. Israel offered these sacrifices, because they themselves were unable to ascend to God; they killed and burned the offerings as an act of repentance and vicarious self-giving, hoping the smoke could ascend to God and be accepted in their stead. This sacramental union was finalized when the priests ate the sacrifice “in the presence of the Lord”, which symbolized table fellowship with Yahweh.

Peter Leithart’s explanation of OT sacrificial theology represents a Thomistic sentiment. Sacrifices were seen by Aquinas as vicarious offerings of the self through the animal offerings for the purpose of creating union of God and man. The point of the sacrifices were “giving up” part of yourself to God; something valuable, something representative. This is why Israel offered animals, because they were comparable to income during those times. Even more, they gave the first born without spot and blemish. This was the most valuable animal. To give an animal like that was to give up part of your own income and wealth, and thus it was seen as a vicarious act of self-giving.

Moving on the cross, Leithart points out that the cross is seen by NT writers as fulfilling and finalizing OT sacrifices because while the OT sacrifices were vicarious, Christ’s was personal and actual. He didn’t offer to God a goat or bull, hoping that God would accept those in their place; rather, Christ offered himself in totality to God. Leithart says this:

[Christ] fulfilled the sacrificial system because he did what all sacrifices signified…  Jesus did this in fact when he offered himself, passing through death into union with God like an animal sacrifice. (p 159)

So he fulfilled what all other sacrifices wished to fulfill: the offering of the total self to God. In fact, this is the point of the resurrection: it was simply smoke that rose to God; rather, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and rose him up and seated him at his right hand. Sacramental union has been definitively accomplished in the person of Jesus.

But Leithar acknowledges: Jesus ” was not the first martyr to give his life to the God of Israel” (p 159). So what made his sacrifice different from all the other martyrs of the faith of Israel? Leithart answers:

The answer is, his identity and life. Jesus was the “son of God” in the Old Testament sense: he was Israel’s King, Israel embodied in a single person, and so his death, like the death of every king of Israel, was on behalf of his people. When he passed through death toward transfiguration, Israel went with him. More, Jesus was Israel’s king and Israel High King in one person, both David’s Son and David’s Lord. He poured out his blood, the life of his flesh, as Yahweh incarnate, and so his passage through death was Yahweh’s own passion, God’s own passage through human. Besides, Jesus’ entire life made his martyrdom unique. Heroic as they were, no other martyrs had lived a life of complete obedience to Torah. None had fully realized all that Torah required. Like every sacrificial animal, Jesus offered himself “without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14) (pp 159-160)

Jesus’ sacrifice was unique because Jesus was representative of Israel; and, borrowing from Saint Anselm, Jesus was man and God, which made his death utterly and infinitely more valuable than any other death of a human being. But even more than that, Jesus’ sacrifice was pure and without blemish. Because Jesus obeyed the Torah in full, he offered himself a pure oblation, innocent one, perfectly loving and just. God took delight in that and raised him up, and consequently, all Israel in him.

Aquinas said in his Summa Theologia that the value in Christ’s self-offering was not so much his suffering (although this doesn’t discount the need for vicarious suffering), but rather in the infinite perfect love with which he suffered. The entire point of the sacrifices was the give the self to God entirely: this is just what Christ did in the cross by dying in perfect love. And that infinite love was sufficient for the remission of all the world’s sin!

 

 Why the Virgin Birth?

One of the more peculiar teachings of the Christian faith, affirmed throughout all of the creeds, is the fact that Christ was born of the virgin Mary. Meaning, Mary had not had any relations before she gave birth to Christ.

Both Matthew and Luke agree on this fact. In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will birth a child. Mary, not being married, rightly asks: “How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” (Lk 1:34). Gabriel answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God” (v. 35).

Matthew’s account is similar. He adds the detail the her virginal birth is in fulfillment of prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Mt 1:23).

There is not much more information about the virgin birth in the epistles. Some say that Paul alludes to it in Galatians 4:4, or that John references Mary in Revelation 13. But there are not really any more details about this. It is simply stated in the gospel accounts.

Many have speculated, with such scarce reference in the New Testament, what is the purpose of the virgin birth? Or, to say it another way: did Mary have to be a virgin to give birth to Christ? Was there some necessity to it? Did the virginal birth, as some presume, in some way preserve the divinity of Christ? Or preserve the sinlessness of Christ?

Frederick Bruner has an interesting examination of the doctrine in his commentary on Matthew, Christbook. His estimation is that the reason for the virgin cannot be found in preserving Christ’s divinity or sinlessness. He aptly points out:

If the first Adam — whoever he was — came into being without two human parents and yet was truly human, why could not Jesus the last Adam be without a single human parent and still be truly human? “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14) (pp 39)

In other words, Jesus could come into the world in really any way he wanted, and be fully God and fully man, sinless. God, after all, is omnipotent!

So then, why the virginal birth? Bruner cites Karl Barth, saying:

The virgin birth teaches an immensely important doctrinal truth: that in human salvation “the initiative is wholly with God”. The doctrine of the virgin birth, in a striking metaphor, stands “on guard” before the door of the mystery of Jesus’ divinely wrought salvation — only God can work salvation, and this is exactly what the Christmas stories’ virgin birth teaches with a dramatic eloquence. (pp 40)

In other words, the incarnation of Christ is a complete work of God. Because she was a virgin, Mary was merely a recipient of God’s grace. Man had nothing to do with it.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Introduction to Christianity, agrees with this. He says:

The Virgin Birth is not a lesson in asceticism, nor does it belong directly to the doctrine of Jesus’ divine Sonship; it is first to last a theology of grace, a proclamation of how salvation comes to us: in the simplicity of acceptance,as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world… In Jesus, God has placed, in the midst of barren, hopeless mankind, a new beginning that is not a product of human history but a gift from above. (pp 278)

Because of this, Ratzinger concludes that Mary herself is an image of the church. He says:

As the true “daughter of Zion”, Mary is the image of the Church, the image of believing man, who can come to salvation and to himself only through the gift of love — through grace.

I think that Bruner and Ratzinger both get to the bottom of the doctrine of the virginal birth: it is an action of grace. A unilateral action of God in which man is passive, having nothing to contribute. All is grace!

He Descended into Hell?

Our church recites the Apostles’ Creed every other week. It’s a beautiful, ancient creed. I love its Trinitarian formula: God the Father is maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ, the begotten-Son, is redeemer. The Holy Spirit brings the saints together into one holy catholic church.

As beautiful and ancient as it is, many people are thrown off by one line which comes under the office of the Son. It says that after Christ had died and was buried, that “He descended into hell”.

Jesus descended into hell? What does that mean?

What usually comes to mind here is Christ dying and then going to the fires of hell to be further tormented by the devil. This imagery would reasonably detract many people. Is this what the creed really means by “he descended into hell”?

In this post I want to lay out the common historic understandings of this line. I will look at three views: The Reformed view, the Lutheran view, and the Roman Catholic view:

First, the Reformed churches have historically rejected any notion that Christ went to hell after his death and during his three days in the grave. Rather, the Reformed churches pose that Christ’s descent into hell refers to the anguish he experienced on the cross. Christ, being separated from the Father, bearing the sins of the world, experienced eternal torment for mankind on the cross.

The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44, says it this way:

Why is it added: “He descended into hell”?

That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which he suffered in his soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell

Christ has experienced hell that I might not. And of course this is true.

The Luther church, however, would disagree with this understanding of the creed. The Lutherans understand Christ’s descent into hell under the rubric of his victory over satan and demons.

Lutheran Henry Jacobs, in his Summary of Christian Doctrine, questions 39-43, says that “the Reformed Church regards ‘the descent into hell’ as a part of the humiliation; the Lutheran Church, as we shall see, regards it the first grade of the State of Exaltation”.

Jacobs classifies Christ’s descent into hell as part of his exaltation (i.e. victory over sin and death) as opposed to his humiliation (i.e. experience of wrath and the cross). How can this be so? Jacobs brings in 1 Peter 3:18-19 as proof that when Christ descended into hell, it was not to suffer, but rather to pronounce victory over the demonic spirits.

1 Peter 3:18-19 says,

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison

Jacobs explains:

We simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. We should not, however, trouble ourselves with sublime and acute thoughts, as to how this occurred. (Formula of Concord, 643)

So, during the three days in the grave, Christ descended into hell to “destroy the power of hell”. This was on the basis that Christ had defeated sin and death.

The Roman Catholic church differs only slightly from the Lutheran position. The Catholic catechism says:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there

Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him (632-33)

The Catholic church affirms with the Lutherans that Jesus went into hell, or Sheol, or the realm of the dead, however one sees it. But he went there “not…to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just”. Meaning, Jesus went to release the Old Testament saints into the beatific vision. According to this view, the Old Testament faithful could not enter into the divine vision until justice had been satisfied — the cross did just that. And so Jesus went to Sheol to preach victory and to release the faithful to heaven.

The Catholic church provides 1 Peter 4:6 as proof of this: “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does”.

The catechism says:

The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

It is important to note that the Lutheran church doesn’t deny that Christ released the faithful into the divine presence. Henry Jacobs explains that “we may regard it probable that the proclamation of victory announced to one class to their terror was made to another class, to their joy and triumph.” However, he prefaces that “we dare not think of those who departed in faith as until then ‘in prison.'” In other words, the Old Testaments saints may have been freed into the beatific vision, however, they were not in “prison” (1 Pet 3:19) as the demonic spirits were.

So these are the three main interpretations of Christ’s descent into hell. While I do affirm the Reformed position, that Christ experienced hell on the cross, I must admit that that position has weaknesses. What about Peter’s description of Christ’s descent? What about “preaching to the dead”? For this reason, I also affirm that Christ did descend into Sheol, or hell, to pronounce his victory over sin and death. This pronouncement, I presume, both condemned the demonic spirits, and redeemed the Old Testament saints. It was the last phase of Christ’s mission, after which he was resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father.

Jesus: God and man?


Frank Sheed has a very lively and helpful discourse in his Theology and Sanity on the incarnation. Is Christ God? Is he man? How can he possibly be both? Is this some sort of schizophrenia?

Sheed explains:

God the Son was a Person, a Someone, possessing the nature of God in its fullness, and this in the eternity of the Divine Being. At a certain point in time He took to Himself and made His own a human nature. Thus we have the unique instance of one single person with two natures, divine and human. To the question “Who are you”? Christ would have but one answer. He is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Son, the Word. But to the question “What are you”? Christ Our Lord would have two answers, for He has two natures; He is God and He is man.

What Sheed explains is that the person and the natures must be understood when examining the mystery of the incarnation. It was the person of the Son who became incarnate. But that person possessed two complete natures: God and man.

How this can be is simply a mystery. But this does help us understand who and what we are talking about when we think of the incarnation.