Brian Zahnd, about a year or so ago wrote a blog post entitled: How Does “Dying for our Sins” Work? For the remainder of this post we will engage with what Zahnd wrote, and then we will compare Zahnd’s theory of the atonement with German theologian’s, ‘Father of Modern Theological Liberalism’, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theory of the atonement; I see some similarity between Zahnd and Schleiermacher (not total, but some). We will be using George Hunsinger’s treatment of Schleiermacher’s view as the template by which we attempt to provide some historical precedence, at a material level, for Zahnd’s approach. (Obviously since this is a blog post things will remain unfinished and suggestive)
Zahnd has an allergy to Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), and to framing what happened at the cross in forensic terms (at all), it appears. He seems to have given into the idea that is very popular today that PSA represents Divine child abuse, he writes:
I find most of them inadequate; others I find repellent. Particularly abhorrent are those theories that portray the Father of Jesus as a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. The god who is mollified by throwing a virgin into a volcano or by nailing his son to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus!
Zahnd is also repulsed by Covenant theology’s conception of the atonement wherein God ostensibly elects certain individuals for salvation, sends the Son to die for the elect (alone), pays their penalty (again in forensic terms), resulting in God’s ability to love these elect people whom he purchased by His cross-work in Jesus Christ. Zahnd writes:
Neither is the death of Jesus a kind of quid pro quo by which God gains the necessary capital to forgive sinners. No! Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals God! Jesus does not provide God with the capacity to forgive; Jesus reveals God as forgiving love. An “economic model” of the cross just won’t work. It’s not as if God is saying, “Look, I’d love to forgive you, but I’ve got to pay off Justice first, and, you know how she is, she’s a tough goddess, she requires due payment.” This understanding of the cross begs the question of who exactly is in charge — the Father of Jesus or some abstract ideal called “Justice”?
We see, briefly then, what kind of conception of the atonement Zahnd rejects; and we also see inklings of what he proposes instead (in the last quote from him). Besides the false dilemma Zahnd creates between Justice as an ‘abstract ideal’ and God as God, we will press onto to stating just exactly what it is that Zahnd sees as the correct approach towards articulating what the atonement of Jesus Christ actually entails and what it accomplished.
Zahnd is very straightforward about what he thinks the atonement of Jesus is, he writes (at length):
Let me suggest that when we say Jesus died for our sins, we mean something like this: We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving us. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he was not asking God to act contrary to his nature. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he was, as always, revealing the very heart of God!
At the cross we violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus absorbed them, died because of them, carried them into death, and rose on the third day to speak the first world [sic] of the new world:“Peace be with you.”
When I say “we” violently sinned our sins into Jesus, I mean that all of us are more or less implicated by our explicit or tacit support of the systems of violent power that frame our world. These are the very political and religious systems that executed Jesus. At the cross we see where Adam and Eve’s penchant for blame and Cain’s capacity for killing have led us — to the murder of God! At Golgotha human sin is seen as utterly sinful. God did not require the death of Jesus — but we did!
So let’s be clear, the cross is not about the appeasement of a monster god. The cross is about the revelation of a merciful God. At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives. Once we understand this, we know what we are seeing when we look at the cross: We are seeing the lengths to which a God of love will go in forgiving sin.
Zahnd has some compelling language and even truthful things communicated in his presentation, but there is some other stuff mixed in that I find problematic; particularly the section I have italicized and emboldened above.
What is it that Zahnd actually believes in regard to the atoning work of Jesus Christ? In some ways it is somewhat difficult to tell. We see him affirming an apparently high Christology, but then at points promoting a low and/or middle view of salvation. When he writes, “At Golgotha human sin is seen as utterly sinful. God did not require the death of Jesus — but we did!” and then he writes, “The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives.” It is at these points that I smell Schleiermacher lurking, at least at a superficial level.
As usual these types of posts run long, quickly! I will break this into two posts, this one and the forthcoming post to follow this one. Now that we have an idea about what Zahnd is against and what he is for, respectively, in regard to how he understands the atonement we are better situated to do a comparison and contrast between him and Schleiermacher. Although, my guess is that the next post will have to be an introduction to Schleiermacher’s own view, and then we will be set up for a third post wherein we will finally be ready to compare and contrast Zahnd and Schleiermacher (according to Hunsinger).