Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Atonement for Dummies?

Andii asks:
"I have to ask whether in our cultural situation we can actually do 'right use' on a popularly-accessible version of PSA which can be grasped in essence by, eg an intelligent 9 year old, and convey the important points in such a way as not to easily lead astray (in our cultural situation, I emphasise). I'm coming to the conclusion that we cannot."
The first question for our message isn't whether it can be understood, but is it true. Is our message what the scriptures teach. If it isn't we need to go and sort that out. If it is, then we come to communication.

Peter Bolt, in The Cross from a Distance (p128):
“It is the temptation of the teacher to clarify what seems difficult. Interpreters have often sought to this by inventing illustrations of proposing analogies for Christ's work on the cross. This is a temptation, however, that should be resisted at all costs. The track record of these manufactured illustrations has nmot been a happy one; they have been sometimes obscure, often bizarre or inhumane, and usually just plain heretical. Any illustration can get into trouble simply by virtue of the fact that it requires saying God's Word in other words, entalining an automatic shift away from God's Word. Although the preacher needs to 'illustrate' the world to which the Word is addressed, the Word itself should probably be permitted to speak for itself. In addition there are some thing that should never be illustrated. As with the Trinity, given the unique nature of the cross, analogies simply do not exist. We understand the cross, not by finding soem contemporary illustration that clinches the deal, but by listening carefully to the biblical context in which it makes sense. This may leave us with some unexplained mysteries, but, even so, we shall be closer to the truth when we live with the rough edges of God's Word that when we try to impose the smooth lines of our own fancy illustrations."
I don't have to try and twist the cross to be understandable - but to explain it with care. We're sharply warned against twisting it to make it easier to hear. Doing it carefully will take time. But, with all due urgency we do have time. We can afford to lay out the story. Jesus was incarnate into the world he created and the community he created (both by his word). God spent 1800+ years (or indeed all of history before Jesus!) setting the framework in history to give us all the categories we need to understand the cross perfectly well - and indeed everything else about God. (Try the tabernacle to understand aspects of the trinity for another example.)

The problem is that we often buy into a quick decisionism which needs to clinch the deal in a few soundbites. That doesn't lend itself well to telling the story of God in detail. I find Don Carson's 10 part telling of the gospel story (as outlined in his The Gagging of God) to be a compelling approach - laying out the gospel story at length rather than jumping straight to the centre of it. Paul speaks to the Galatians about how he only preached the Cross but writes like he expects they'll remember vast things about God's promises to Abraham, how and why the law was given and other subjects that the average Christian today may never learn. We need the big story.

We simply don't need to twist the cross to make it easy to understand. It isn't that difficult. And even if it were we simply need to teach the categories to understand it. And it doesn't seem to just be that 9 year old's can't get their head around it - many who are much older and better educated can't either. My experience, and I think scripture's testimony, is that it's rarely the head that struggles with the meaning of the cross. It's the heart that can't understand it. We must argue and prove the meaning of the cross (and we can), but it will take a re-creation miracle to open the heart's eyes to adore the cross. And after all, the cross is God's wisdom to shame our wisdom - it's designed to make us look stupid by giving us something so 'primitive' and simple that we can never boast our intelligence for having figured it out.

More on the meaning of the cross at The Coffee Bible Club blog