BISHOP SPONG AND THE ATONEMENT’
THE REV. LEANDER S. HARDING, PH.D.
Thesis number 6 in Spong’s manifesto is :The view of the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive ideas about God and must be dismissed.
We have already reviewed the chapter in Spong’s book entitled “Jesus as the Divine Rescuer: An Image That Has To Go.” Spong rejects the classic Christian narrative of salvation. That narrative is that God creates the world and humanity and pronounces the creation good. A rebellious and evil spirit tempts humanbeings and the human race falls for evil. Because of this fall or Original Sin evil spreads and humankind and the whole creation lies under the spell of evil. God sends the incarnate Son to be a sacrifice for the sins of the world and to restore and redeem a fallen humanity and a fallen creation. Thus as the Prayer Book says “All Glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of they tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. . .” Thus Christ makes an atonement, an “at onement” between God and humanity. The chasm of sin which separates us from God has been crossed from God’s side. The traditional teaching of the church is that this healing of the breach is accomplished at the cost of the cross.
Sometimes this story of salvation is presented in a very crude way as in some forms of fundamentalist and revivalist teaching. The story of salvation is told in such wise as to make God an angry God who can only be satisfied by the blood of the Son. God is pictured as angry at us but punishes Jesus instead. In the theology of the church it is always regarded that the Father sends the Son, so that there can be no question of the Son changing the Father’s intention toward us which is always an intention of love. The church in her formularies has not required as a matter of faith a formula describing the manner of the Atonement similar to the precise statements concerning the Incarnation (i.e. very God of very God, of one being with the Father) It is simply affirmed that for us and for our salvation He came down from heaven and gave his life as a ransom for many. The cross has ever been the central symbol of Christianity and that we are saved by the cross of Christ and not our own deeds a fundamental of the faith. Spong rejects not only the crude sub-Christian interpretations of the cross but the whole narrative of salvation. There is no such thing as a perfect creation, no such thing as a fall, no such thing as sin. There should be no such thing as guilt because our problem is not that we transgress a moral order we recognize as righteous but that we are still developing and evolving to “higher levels of consciousness.” Occasionally we succumb to the “baggage of evolution.” We need to be inspired to press forward to be “all we can be.” We are not sinners. We do not need a saviour. The cross shows the freedom of Jesus to “love wastefully” but it does not rescue us from sin. We need no such rescue. The image of Jesus as divine rescuer, says Spong, has to go.
Of all Spong’s theses this is the one to which I am most sympathetic. Particularly in the American religious scene in much popular teaching in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism the cross has often been presented in terms of an angry God who punishes Jesus instead of us. This preaching and teaching exaggerates the extent of the Fall with doctrines such as the “utter depravity of humankind.” There is an attempt to bring people to repentance by artificially cultivating an exaggerated sense of guilt, shame and fear. It is as though we needed to be saved from God instead of sin and evil. This distorted teaching is psychologically damaging and has driven countless people from the church. The right antidote for this distorted teaching is not to jettison the cross (in which case you have simply abandoned the Christian Faith) but to perceive the cross aright as God’s saving act of love whereby we are bought at great price and redeemed as God’s own.
Spong’s alternative to the traditional Christian story of creation, fall and redemption by a loving God is a story of natural, almost automatic growth and development toward higher consciousness. This is a totally inadequate reading of the human situation. It is the most recent generations of humanity that have perpetuated evil on themselves and God’s good creation on a scale unprecedented in history. That we are made for goodness and righteousness, to know and worship God and to love and serve each other, that we have fallen into sin and evil and can not extricate ourselves; that we need a saviour, is a far more profound reading of the human problem and offers a more sure and certain hope.
But how shall a God of love save us? God must conquer sin and evil and communicate that victory to us. But what are the weapons of a God of love; holiness, righteousness and sacrificial love. God conquers evil by drowning it in the blood of the cross. That is to say God vanquishes evil by overwhelming it with love. On the cross God conquers our rebellion and resistance to God and God defeats the power of evil. God’s gift of God’s self in sacrifice becomes active in our lives as a redeeming power which breaks the spell of sin and brings us back to God. There is atonement between us and God. Because we are made at one with God there is a new possibility of forgiveness and unity one with another. So on the cross Jesus is an example of obedience to God and love toward us and He is our saviour and champion who defeats the enemies of our human nature.
But the church has also taught that He has paid the price of our sins. We owed the debt but he paid the price. This language strikes deep in the human heart. It can be distorted as we have noted above but it can not be eliminated. How shall the murder of a child be forgiven if there is not atonement, no amends. If God just overlooks our sin and evil and offers cheap grace, we should refuse it in the name of human dignity. Sin violates the moral order and amends must be made. Atonement must be made. I want to know not only that I am forgiven but that things have been put right, the damage repaired, the bill paid in full. Language such as this is certainly more responsive to the deepest longings of our hearts and the reality of our troubled consciences than glib talk of the “baggage of evolution” and the abstractions of “higher consciousness.”
Here there are words of St. Paul which point to the mystery of the cross, “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin.” He of himself knew no sin. He knew only perfect love for the Father and perfect love for us. But that love lead him to a complete identification with us, to taking upon himself the burden of our sins. God does not just overlook sins, God in Christ meets and bears it away at the cost of the cross with a sacrificial, suffering love.
The cross is a mystery which means that we can comprehend much about it but that it is also beyond our complete comprehension. It is good to think, to reason, to comprehend as much as possible about God’s saving plan made perfect in the cross of Christ. In fact we are called to such a rational comprehension of God’s truth as we are by nature able. But there comes a moment when thinking and puzzling passes into contemplation, wonder, awe and praise and to the confession of the Roman Centurion at the end of Mark’s Gospel, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”
The crucified saviour speaks of God’s compassion and understanding toward those who suffer and of God’s precious and costly forgiveness to those for whom the memory of sin is “is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.” We behold the cross of Christ and fall to our knees in repentance. We cry out for mercy deeply convicted that the one we cry to knows our suffering and is mighty to save.
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; of the mighty conflict sing;
tell the triumph of the victim, to his cross thy tribute bring.
Jesus Christ, the world’s Redeemer from that cross now reigns as King.
Thirty years among us dwelling, his appointed time fulfilled, born for this,
he meets his passion, this the saviour freely willed:
on the cross the lamb is lifted, where his precious blood is spilled.
He endures the nails, the spitting, vinegar, and spear, and reed:
from that holy body broken blood and water forth proceed:
earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean, by that flood from stain are freed.
Faithful cross! above all other, one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron! sweetest weight is hung on thee.
Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory! Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty gently on thine arms extend.
Praise and honor to the Father, praise and honor to the Son,
praise and honor to the Spirit ever Three and every One:
one in might and one glory while eternal ages run.