We Need To Talk About Doctrine
Benjamin Corley recently wrote a blog post, “5 Areas Where Progressive Christian Culture Completely Loses Me.” Some of them are things with which I couldn’t agree more – policing borders being the biggest one. On the other hand, what, precisely, is “mishandling Scripture”? As soon as Corley can point to any Christian in history, from St. Peter to me and himself, who hasn’t done that, I might say, “You know, you have a point.” We “mishandle” Scripture because we’re human. And Scripture isn’t a hammer; if we “mishandle” it, we aren’t going to break a thumb. At worst, we might end up insisting on all sorts of things various Christians have claimed as true over the centuries, from Coptic Incarnational theology through the Orthodox rejection of the “filioque” clause in the Confession of Constantinople to sola scriptura. So, I’ll just remain befuddled.
Where he loses me completely – and apparently, I have lost him – is the issue of the doctrine of atonement. Derived from ancient legal theories, essentially the doctrine deals both with the need for and mechanics of God’s saving act in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Never mind the antiquated wording – “sin nature”? Really? Is essentialism a thing again? – the whole matter of the doctrine of atonement (a) answers questions dealt with elsewhere, particularly in teachings about grace – prevenience, justification, sanctification – and (b) is rooted in thousands-years-old understandings of the role of blood, of getting someone else to pay the price for one’s crime, and is this odd combination, therefore, of ancient biology and legal theories that have zero-zilch-nada to do with our life today.
Furthermore, on the whole matter of sin: Mr. Corley, this isn’t about you. I mean no disrespect, but the salvation that comes to all of us in and through Jesus Christ is something that is both once for all – the passion/resurrection event – and something we must all seek after each day, each moment of each day, coming afresh, in new ways and images, in new words, even whole new languages! To be a Christian is to live this tension at all times. That, Mr. Corley, is indeed in Scriptures, in the testimony of the Risen Crucified Christ to his disciples prior to his ascension (a matter upon which Mr. Corley says nothing at all).
What God the Father did in and through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was not get rid of something called “sin nature” because there is no such thing. No matter how hard Mr. Corley looks in Scripture, he won’t find those words, he won’t find that concept, he won’t find that description of humanity. The death of Christ was not a legal action done so that a debt humanity owed God could be paid through the magic of blood spilled. Jesus was not the scapegoat upon whom the people of Israel poured their sins, to be sent to the desert, most likely to die. Jesus was the beloved Son of God; that love that binds them is the Holy Spirit, in which and through which God not so much paid our debt (or at least our bail) but healed the wounds we had inflicted in the relationship between Creation and Creator. This isn’t “atonement”, because there’s no magical blood in a fountain that washes us white as snow. There’s no debt or ransom paid in order to set our individual legal standing before God correct. It is, and always has been, grace. The prodigal, overflowing love of God for this fallen Creation, a love that literally stopped at nothing, including the emptying of the Son of God of all that “divinity” might mean in order to become human and take upon that human form not just any form, but that of a slave – a slave obedient even to death on a cross.
Now, I understand that these things are important, even necessary, for Mr. Corley’s self-understanding as a Christian. Not only can he, but he should continue to hold them fast. They are part of his identity. I wanted him to understand, however, there are those of us no less committed to a life in and for Christ who find “atonement” not only meaningless, but a stumbling block to understanding what it is God in Christ was doing for Creation (don’t even get me started on the whole Virgin Birth thing).
Doctrine isn’t the proclamation of God. They are all too human statements that have emerged, sometimes through painful processes involving death, as the Church wrestles with the Truth that while we were yet sinners (not having a “sin nature”), God in Christ came to us and for us, proving God’s love – the Holy Spirit in action – for all of us. Doctrine is important, don’t misunderstand me. Doctrine is little more than human talk about that about which language ultimately fails – who and what God is in and through the Christian experience of God. Every doctrine, no matter how time-tested, no matter how often we repeat it, is no more right than it is wrong. It’s just, us imperfect people living in the midst of confusion and tension trying as best we can to let other people know who we are and why we are. To my mind, using a thousands-year-old legal theory (that includes magic blood, don’t forget that!) that has to be explained first, before the actual doctrine itself can even begin to make sense, has long outlasted its usefulness. That there are better, clearer ways to say what God was doing in Christ for all of Creation; that there are ways in contemporary thought, imagery, and language that people can readily understand; these need to be borne in mind as we continue to discuss the matter of doctrine in the Church.
Unless we as a group who follows and believes in God in Christ, not teachings, not theology, not doctrine, are willing to take a good hard look at how doctrine is as much a hindrance as it is a help in our identity and our explanations to others, we are failing at the one task we’ve been given – to go make of all disciples, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.